Social Work Hosts International Conference on Health and Mental Health

July 18, 2013
by Eric Lindberg
A group of conference attendees toured the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, including a visit to the emergency helipad.

Under a sunny Southern California sky, hundreds of leading social work researchers, clinicians, and policy makers convened to discuss the latest breakthroughs in health and mental health during a recent international conference led by the USC School of Social Work and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Held in the United States for the first time in its nearly two-decade history, the 7th International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health featured more than 300 presentations and discussions on critical issues such as aging, integrated care and homelessness.

“Southern California and the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area really is an ideal location to focus on the role of social work in client-centered health and mental health,” Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work, said in her opening address to conference attendees. “Because of the size and diversity of our population, we’ve introduced many innovations in research and practice in client-centered care.”

Participants witnessed many of those strategies in practice during field visits to more than 30 service providers and clinics throughout the region, from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, in addition to attending plenary sessions that focused on issues ranging from the role of social work in an increasingly interconnected world to efforts to improve disability care in Sweden. The conference also featured a symposia series on advances in specialized topics such as cancer care, health reform, Latino health, and military personnel and their families.

Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, said the recent passage of federal health care legislation known as the Affordable Care Act gave the event particular relevance.

“Here in California and Los Angeles and many places in this country, we’re trying to find the right way to figure out how mental health, primary care and substance abuse treatment merge together in such a way that they really serve the needs of families, individuals, and communities,” he said. “No one has the magic answer. Nobody has the full picture yet.”

Although he acknowledged strategies to improve health and mental health care might not always translate across cultural and national boundaries, Southard said he was hopeful that the gathering inspired dialogue about promising approaches and led to increased collaboration across borders.

“The highlight for me is to hear from international colleagues and get feedback for some of the ideas we have, because many other nations have had more experience in integrative health systems than we have,” he said. “I hope that together we’ve learned something we can do to help the people of all nations lead better, richer, and fuller lives.”

To kick off the conference, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas gave a short address and praised the USC School of Social Work for producing a steady stream of well-qualified practitioners who often go on to provide services to many of the county’s 10 million residents.

A USC graduate with a doctorate in social ethics and policy analysis, Ridley-Thomas has championed community engagement on issues of health, mental health and children’s services since being elected in 2008. During his opening remarks, he said the profession of social work plays a critical role in helping people facing challenging circumstances, from discrimination, abuse and addiction to unemployment, disabilities and mental illness.

“It seems to me we owe a great debt of gratitude to social workers,” he said. “They help prevent crises and counsel individuals, families and communities to cope more effectively with the stresses of everyday life. Social workers rock!”

Ridley-Thomas noted the profession is expanding rapidly, citing U.S. census figures indicating that approximately 845,000 people identify as social workers. That figure is expected to increase by 25 percent from 2010 to 2020, he said, faster than any other comparable occupation.

In addition to presenting a scroll signed by the board of supervisors to conference leaders recognizing the event, Ridley-Thomas also offered a few words of advice to the audience, encouraging them to showcase their work and highlight the profession as a rewarding career path.

“Don’t forget to toot your own horn,” he said. “My grandmother was clear about that. She said to me, Mark, it’s a mighty poor dog that doesn’t wag its own tail.”

The opening ceremony also featured a plenary session led by Elizabeth Clark, the immediate past chief executive officer of the National Association of Social Workers. She encouraged conference attendees to take a step back before delving into specific abstract presentations and discussions with colleagues in the subsequent days to consider social work from an international perspective.

Human rights, social justice and client-centered care have always been primary tenets of social work, she said, but the profession has struggled to assume leadership in those key areas.

“Social work has become a global profession, and we need to think broader about what we do,” Clark said. “I’m asking you at this conference to own our expertise. We have a very rich legacy to build on.”

Clark was followed by four other plenary speakers during the five-day conference, including Sarah Gehlert, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and the Department of Surgery at Washington University, and Nancy Krieger, a professor of society, human development and health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Conference participants also attended a discussion by Bengt Westerberg, former minister of social affairs and deputy prime minister of Sweden, about efforts to reform disability services in Sweden, where many individuals with disabilities now have access to personal assistants.

In the final plenary session of the conference, Elyn Saks, the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the USC Gould School of Law, described her personal experience with schizophrenia, a presentation that brought attendees to their feet for a sustained round of applause.

During the closing ceremony, Haluk Soydan, conference co-chair and associate dean of research at the USC School of Social Work, passed the reins of the ongoing conference series to a delegation from Singapore, where the next gathering will take place in 2016.

As the event drew to a close, Flynn said she was honored that the school was selected to host the conference and pleased with the results.

“I think it was very satisfying for an international audience,” she said. “I think we made excellent use of the campus, and people better understand USC and the strength of our faculty and the beauty of this environment.”