Providing Mental Health Services to TANF Recipients: Program Design Choices and Implementation Challenges in Four States. Mental Health Counselors/Specialists


Mental health counselors are mostly licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), certified social workers(12) supervised by an LCSW, or other licensed mental health professionals (such as psychologists and marriage and family therapists). The credentials required by the state depend on the types of mental health services provided. For example, in Tennessee, which provides a wide range of services, mental health staff are required to have expertise in at least two of five areas (mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, child behavior, or learning disabilities). In some areas of Oregon, staff are required to have expertise in both mental health and substance abuse.

In addition to their clinical training, mental health counselors in the study states have extensive experience in providing mental health treatment and a deep understanding of the mental health service delivery system. Both professional credentials and experience are a key consideration in the hiring decisions of program administrators. In most states, licensure is required to conduct in-depth psychosocial assessments and mental health therapy. Certified social workers may provide these services only under the supervision of an LCSW or other licensed mental health professional.

Social workers have a range of responsibilities associated with providing mental health services to welfare recipients. These responsibilities may include performing client assessments, providing or linking clients to mental health treatment, making recommendations for the volume and types of activities to include in an employment plan, consulting with employment case managers, and monitoring and tracking client participation in mental health treatment. Caseload sizes, which vary by site, are influenced by the types of services provided, number of TANF clients served in the local welfare office, and the length of time case managers hold on to a case.

The benefit of hiring licensed mental health professionals is that they are trained to deal with the challenging behaviors and mental health conditions often exhibited by TANF clients. Accessible to employment staff, they can also serve as resources for the client and employment case managers. The drawback is that qualified mental health professionals may be difficult to find and expensive to retain compared with bachelor's level staff.(13)

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