The majority of social workers today work at what is known as the “micro” level. This involves working directly with individuals across areas including child social work, elder social work, clinical social work and psychiatric social work.
When most people think of social work they think of those professionals that help individuals, such as school counselors, mental health workers or behavioral therapists.
What people outside the profession, including students, may not realize is that this area is known as “micro-level” social work. The broader profession is actually comprised of three distinct spheres – micro (individual), mezzo (community/organizational) and macro (state/national/policy).
It is the individual, micro level that occupies the vast majority of social workers today. Micro-level social work careers involve working directly with individuals and families on a one-on-one basis. Hands-on clinical social workers form the single largest group of mental health providers in the United States today. A survey by the National Association of Social Workers found that 68 percent of social workers are employed at this micro level.
Social Work Career Paths at the Micro Level
Those entering the field of social work typically picture themselves working in micro social work areas, such as counseling, case management, and other individual-focused work. Social work career paths at this level span many areas, including child social work, clinical social work, and psychiatric social work.
Social workers and social service workers engaged at the micro level play many important roles:
- help clients access housing and other social services
- work with young people in foster care, schools or juvenile detention
- help families navigate the complex social services system
- counsel people with mental health or substance abuse issues, or behavioral disorders.
People working in these professions generally find tremendous reward in being able to apply the broader social work theory they have learned throughout their education on a personal level and gain satisfaction from making an observable difference in people’s lives. Such work is suited to those with strong interpersonal skills and a desire to help individuals and families.
Many Challenges, Many Rewards
As Assistant Director for Children’s Services for Baltimore County, Maryland, Judith Schagrin is in charge of the state’s foster care and adoptions program. Schagrin and her team work with children in the Juvenile Court system whose parents are unable to care for them.
When asked about the emotional element of her role in a profile for The Atlantic magazine, Schagrin explains, “I think it’s always making sure that the children are front and center, and that I don’t get unemotional about the struggles the kids have.”
“Some of it is just a God-given ability to suck it up, and have an endless amount of concern and caring for kids. Some of it is just my personality: I’m able to find light in almost anything is really important, and not taking myself too seriously.”
Schagrin’s work at the micro level has impacted both her and the people she has worked with. “I have been doing this a long time. I’m actually still in touch with some of the – I still call them kids even though they’re middle-aged grown-ups – kids I worked with all those years ago, I marvel at their resilience and who they’ve become as adults.”
“It’s incredibly corny to say, but there’s absolutely nothing like looking into a child’s eyes and knowing that you’ve made a difference,” Schagrin says. “Or hearing from a young person 30 years later, ‘Are you the Judith Schagrin who saved my life?’ or ‘You’re always someone I knew I could trust.’”
The Right Education for the Job
Those wanting to work in micro-level social work areas such as clinical mental health or behavioral therapy are generally required to have an advanced education. A Master’s of Social Work (MSW) prepares professionals to do advanced specialized clinical work in direct practice or administration. A clinical social worker can provide individual, group and family therapy. An MSW program offers students the opportunity to choose a specialization or concentration in a specific field of practice.
Social problems require complex and sustained intervention at all levels of practice. While each area has its own unique approach, micro social work is inextricably intertwined with both social work at the mezzo level and social work at the macro level.
Find out more about how an education in social work can help you specialize in working with individuals and families.