The past decade has witnessed growing public attention to student behavioral health in higher education. Social work educators and scholars have similarly expressed concerns about students with behavioral health issues, given their potential impact on professional performance. The National Association of Social Workers defines professional impairment, including impairment related behavioral health issues, as an ethical violation. At the same time, federal law, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, provide protections to students and applicants with disabilities, including those with behavioral health disabilities. Scant empirical literature explores how schools of social work manage student issues and ethical tensions related to behavioral health. To address this research gap, this study asks:
- How do master’s level social work programs assess applicants for admission who disclose a history of behavioral health issues?
- What factors are taken into account when assessing these applicants?
This research is part of a larger study that examined the admissionsprocesses of master’s level social work programs in the U.S through an online survey. Invitations were sent to the primary individuals in charge of MSW admissions at each accredited U.S. school of social work (N=250). Of the 250 invitations sent, 182 were started (72.8%) and 146 were completed (80.2%). The questionnaire contained primarily close-ended questions and some open-ended questions regarding admissions policies and procedures, including factors influencing decision making for applicants with behavioral health histories. Quantitative analysis was done using Stata 15.0 and a qualitative content analysis was conducted.
Results showed that the most important factor influencing decision making regarding applicants who disclosed mental health histories was “self-report of successful engagement in treatment/rehabilitation” (62.7%), followed by “potential impact on programmatic success” (40.7%). Logistic regression models showed that private nonprofits were almost four and a half times more likely to consider the impact on success for applicants and almost ten times more likely to consider documentation from a treatment provider than public institutions. In relation to criteria for suitability for admissions given disclosed substance abuse, the most important factors were self-report of successful engagement in treatment/ rehabilitation (63.6%), and length of time since use (47.1%). Logistic regression analyses indicated that private non-profits were ten times more likely to consider documentation from treatment providers than public universities. Themes that emerged in the qualitative analysis revealed how schools balanced and managed the larger ethical, legal and social justice concerns.
Our findings indicate that admissions reviewers consider applicants’ behavioral health histories, while working to uphold ADA requirements and anti-discrimination measures. Results suggest institutional auspices (private vs. public) may influence decision making. Initial best practice guidelines are offered to address the ethical, professional, and legal concerns raised during the admissions processes.