Abstract: Implications of COVID-19 for Social Services and Behavioral Health (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

730P Implications of COVID-19 for Social Services and Behavioral Health

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Elena Delavega, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
Susan Neely-Barnes, PhD, Professor, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
Melissa Hirschi, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
Cherry Malone, MSW, Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
Background & Purpose

The COVID-19 pandemic was a public health crisis (Cartwright & Thompson, 2020) that caused human services managers to face daunting challenges (Barr, 2020; Beghin, 2020; Michener et al., 2020). Despite social distancing mandates (NASHP, 2020), social service and behavioral health agencies needed to remain open and find innovative ways to meet client needs. Telehealth and providing services remotely were instrumental in meeting client needs while safety social distancing (Kaplan, 2020). Working in partnerships with other agencies was another critical strategy to meet client needs (Grizzle et al., 2020; Landers et al., 2020). This research study sought to understand how social and behavioral health agencies in one region of the Southeastern United States were impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.


The research team chose a phenomenological approach to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human service agencies. In collaboration with a local social work board, the team constructed a semi-structured interview guide. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained. Purposeful sampling (Miles et al., 2014; Patton, 2002) was used to choose agencies that represented broad array of practice fields, agency size, and geographic locations (e.g. rural vs. urban). Out of seventy agency managers that were contacted, thirty-seven agreed to participate. Upon receipt of a signed electronic consent form, interviews were conducted and recorded via Zoom. Interview recordings were uploaded to Sonix to create initial transcripts. Initial transcripts were checked and corrected. Research team meetings were held every other week. Interview data were analyzed following Creswell’s (2013) five steps to phenomenological analysis.


The study yielded a rich dataset. The COVID-19 crisis forced changes in usual ways of doing business. These changes created stress for managers and employees, but they also created opportunities, such as the opportunity to innovate. All thirty-seven agencies were providing essential services and therefore had the option of remaining face-to-face, yet many chose to shift some or all services to virtual to protect staff and clients. This poster presentation will highlight the following themes in the data: 1) restrictions on funding; 2) protecting employees; 3) modifying the physical environment; 4) policies/protocols; 5) partnerships; 6) rapid transition to virtual services; 7) improving infrastructure and technology; 8) barriers and the digital divide; and 9) innovations.

Conclusions & Implications

This study indicated that social service and behavioral health agencies were put under strain by the COVID-19 crisis as they struggled to respond to challenges. Many agencies transitioned rapidly to telehealth to deliver services. Agency managers were able to use resiliency and leverage partnerships to respond in creative and innovative ways that benefited the community. Managers who were able to innovate made transformative changes to the mission of their agencies that benefitted clients, employees, and the community. Policy implications include the need to advocate for better access to technology, change in insurance policies, and flexibility in funding mechanisms. For social work education, implications include the need to train future social workers in telehealth and to train in strategies for crisis and emergency management.