Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
School funding continues to be a challenge for school social workers who aim to meet the mental health needs of students across the country. Little is known about how school social workers understand and advocate for school-based mental health services funding despite schools being the primary provider of mental health services among low-income children and children with a mental health diagnosis. Among school-based professionals, school social workers are uniquely positioned to address mental health issues among students, however, many are limited in their capacity due to school administrative or budgetary constraints. The purpose of this qualitative study was to 1) elucidate school social workers’ understanding of the sources of mental health service funding and 2) understand how they advocate for additional funding in their position. This study used stratified purposive sampling to conduct thirty semi-structured interviews with school social workers in three types of school settings in the Chicago-area: traditional, charter, and suburban. Using a grounded theory and inductive coding approach, three major themes emerged from the interview transcripts: (1) varied understanding of funding sources among school social workers, (3) varied understanding of Medicaid reimbursement among school social workers, and (3) low representation of school social workers within school leadership. Participants also identified challenges that school social workers face in the field more broadly, such as high student caseloads and low levels of funding and support for school-based mental health services. Insights from the interviews include that school administrators may not fully understand the mental health needs of their student population and how to leverage state and federal reimbursement for the services that social workers provide. Implications from this study include the need to better leverage these funding streams to hire more clinicians and invest in mental health resources. Overall, findings from this study highlight the continuing need for greater investment in school-based mental health services and greater social worker representation in leadership at both the school and district levels. Future research should aim to understand the unique benefits of delivering services within the school setting versus community-based settings and specific steps to improve the representation of school social workers within leadership. The need for school-based mental health services is especially high during the coronavirus pandemic, and expanding these services has key equity implications such as improving access to mental health care for millions of children during a time of unprecedented stress.