Published May 12, 2022
Ongoing wars and pandemics, added to the personal stresses we all face, can take a toll on our mental health. Since 1949, the month of May has been designated as National Mental Health Month to call attention to the need for mental health awareness and wellness in the lives of Americans. According to Mental Health America, the term mental health refers to the emotional and social well-being of individuals, impacting the way they think, feel, and behave. It plays a role in how people connect with others, make decisions, handle stress and many other aspects of daily life. Paying attention to our own mental health—and our family, friends, and colleagues—is especially important during these unsettled times. As social workers, mental health awareness is a critical aspect of our profession and our ability to connect with appropriate services is imperative. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, for example, has planned an entire month of information, including a Twitter chat on mental health at work, as well as presentations on suicide prevention and reducing the stigma associated with mental health. We also know that stress can look quite different in relation to our diverse backgrounds and the varying interactions we possess.
Young people in foster care also face mental health challenges, which correlates to this month being designated as National Foster Care Month. Having served as a Child Protective Services worker and Treatment Foster Care supervisor, I know, up close, the feelings of loss that are in abundance for children in out-of-home care. I also know the tremendous effort foster families exert to engage, support, and connect. The wholeness of foster care includes birth families and foster children. According to Youth.gov, 463,000 American children and youth are in foster care. The month brings attention to their life situation and acknowledges the family members, foster parents, volunteers, mentors, policymakers and child welfare professionals who help them find permanent homes. Kinship care is especially important for Black and Native American youth, as it preserves cultural connections. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway organization, research has proven that placing children in the care of relatives or kin reduces the trauma of family separation. It helps them maintain a sense of family, belonging, and identity.
The focus on children and mental health builds on last month’s designation as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The childwelfare.gov website includes protective factors conversation guides, designed to help service providers engage caregivers in personalized conversations. The guides can be used one-to-one, as part of structured activity for a large group, or in in-person or virtual settings.
These designated months help bring our attention to critical issues that impact families. The information made available by numerous resources should be accessed and utilized year-round. The reality is that these are challenges we as social workers face daily. Linking with co-workers and other professionals to collaborate, coalesce and problem solve is both calming and proactive. This is in keeping with our ongoing quest to make a positive difference and uplift humankind. I used to hear folks say that children are our future but in truth, children are our present, too. Our daily work matters on behalf of them.
Keith A. Alford, PhD, ACSW
Dean and Professor