How Social Workers Can Drastically Improve Overall Community Safety
By educating the campus community and wider community, social workers can help promote better health, well-being, and safety for the student body.
Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.
Campus safety and community safety are closely linked. Colleges and universities are part of the community and students will always spend some of their time off-campus, even if they live in campus housing. Many safety incidents involving students at higher education institutions take place off-campus, which makes it difficult for the school to implement preventative steps.
So, what can be done? How can we make communities safer for both students and people living in the community who are not affiliated with the college or university? Social workers could ultimately play a key role. Here’s how.
The Role of a Social Worker in Our Communities
Social workers help people during the hardest times of their lives. They help people who are experiencing homelessness, dealing with substance abuse, struggling with mental illness, and processing trauma. People from all walks of life need help from social workers, whether they have people in their lives to support them or not.
The role of a social worker is to support people who are struggling. Typically, they “triage” to determine who needs their help and what kind of support is needed. Then, they connect people to the resources they need, monitor their progress, and intervene as needed. A social worker needs to focus on both the individual and the environment they are in so they can provide appropriate help.
When people are desperate and left behind by society, there is a strong potential for conflict and safety issues. Theft, for example, whether for necessities or substances, is a community safety issue that can and does affect college students. Social workers focus on helping vulnerable populations to reduce these kinds of conflicts.
People who have access to basic needs like shelter, food, and medical care are less likely to be a threat to the community or themselves. Communities with strong social work programs, therefore, are typically safer than those with few resources for people who are struggling and unable to access what they need to improve their situation.
Social Workers in Criminal Justice
Many safety incidents occur when there are conflicts between law enforcement and people with serious mental illnesses. Unfortunately, these conflicts can lead to injuries or even death and don’t generally lead to a safer community overall. Officers are not always trained to respond to mental health crises and often don’t know how to de-escalate these kinds of situations.
Social workers can be very helpful in reducing conflict between law enforcement and those in the community struggling with mental illness. By shifting the focus to prevention and de-escalation, communities can become safer. However, it is important to recognize that working in criminal justice can create challenges for social workers:
“The ethical challenge to social workers is to weigh the needs of the justice system against those of the offender. The social worker should take on the challenge by participating in legislative action to mold social policy to create a balance between the justice system and the offender.” (Roberts & Springer, 2007)
Social workers’ role in criminal justice is still evolving. What is clear, however, is that they can help ensure that people have the best possible chance of getting the help they need and avoid future confrontations with law enforcement.
If implemented well, social workers collaborating with law enforcement can help to reduce crime and save lives. Social workers can also help people who are incarcerated improve their lives so they can safely rejoin the community.
The Educational Role of Social Workers
One important role of a social worker is in education. Social workers can provide information on topics that affect health and safety, such as drug or alcohol addiction, suicide prevention, and the social determinants of health. Education without support isn’t enough to make communities safer, but social workers connect their clients with appropriate services that allow them to make use of their new knowledge.
From a campus community perspective, education can be powerful. Social workers can play an important role in helping to educate young people about a variety of topics surrounding mental and physical health, safety, and substance abuse. By educating the campus community and wider community, social workers can help promote better health, well-being, and safety for the student body.
Social Workers on Campus
Social workers can work in many settings — including directly on campus. The mental health needs of students are escalating, with over 60% of college students exhibiting symptoms of at least one mental health problem. Educational institutions need to understand the seriousness of this widespread problem and provide students with resources to cope.
A social worker, who should be skilled in quickly assessing a person’s greatest area of need, could be employed to help students get the support they need, either directly or by referring the student to on-campus or off-campus resources. Many students slip through the cracks because they simply don’t know where to go for help when they need it.
Having access to a social worker to help them figure out their needs and take action could make a huge difference for a student whose mental health is declining and posing a safety risk to themselves or others. Social workers’ services could be especially valuable for students who are at risk of not graduating due to socioeconomic factors.
Supported Communities Are Safer Communities
An institution of higher education is a community in its own right. That community is contained within the larger community of a city, town, or region. To increase the safety of either community (and ideally both), support is key. Social workers can provide some of the needed support, though they can’t do it alone. Overtaxed social workers are prone to issues like compassion fatigue, so it’s important that they are given the tools and rest they need to make a difference in their community.
On campus, a social worker can help students who are struggling to access resources—from practical needs like food insecurity to mental health concerns and substance abuse. Social workers can be instrumental in connecting students with the resources they need to support them as they navigate life as part of the campus community.
Social workers are also critical in supporting the needs of the surrounding communities. A safe and healthy community helps to support a safe and healthy campus. Institutions can’t think of their campus as a bubble — it’s important to think about what services, resources, and personnel are needed to help support the community as a whole and keep everyone as safe as possible.
Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education.
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