In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychopathology and Social Work Practice

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Selected Mental-Health Disorders and Clinical Syndromes
  • Ethical, Court-Related, and Forensic Mental Health
  • Psychological Trauma
  • Recognizing Comorbid and Co-occurring Conditions

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Social Work Psychopathology and Social Work Practice
Sophia F. Dziegielewski, George Jacinto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0125


As the field of social work practice has expanded its services within health-care and mental health-care settings, social workers have become one of the leading providers in the delivery of mental health-related services. This requires that social workers, regardless of their specialization area, be well versed in diagnosis, assessment, intervention, and treatment planning. Therefore, courses in psychopathology have become the cornerstone of many social work programs, constituting a central aspect of the social work educational curriculum. This focus is clear regardless of the social work program’s concentration or an individual social worker’s interest. In almost all graduate programs, exposure with a resultant expertise in this area is expected. In terms of sheer numbers, social workers outnumber those from other disciplines, such as psychiatry and psychology, who also specialize in this area. Updated information in this area is necessary to help social workers keep abreast of changes while taking into account the lessons learned from the past, as well as current strategy and what will be needed for the future. Because mental health conditions are compilations of extreme symptoms occurring in the greater population, preparation for this aspect of practice requires working knowledge of the DSM-IV-TR, or other multi-assessment strategies. This involves a practice assessment and intervention guided by the foundational knowledge of psychopathology. Most references in this area strive to provide information related to the causes and development (as well as the subsequent treatment) of mental illness, and how professional intervention and prevention efforts can be applied to achieve the best practices.

Reference Works

The following books are considered the major resources used for diagnosis and assessment in the field of social work practice and few professionals would debate that the most commonly used and accepted sources of diagnostic criteria are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), see American Psychiatric Association 2000 and the International Classification of Diseases 10th Revision (ICD-10, see also World Health Organization 1992). Information for the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is easily obtained online. These reference works are generally considered reflective of the official nomenclature in all mental health and other health-related facilities in the United States. Changes are expected in the DSM-5, scheduled to be published in May 2013, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) website provides a comprehensive overview of the suggested changes. With the focus of the “person-in-situation” and “person-in-environment” that has long been the cornerstone of social work practice, stressing the environment and client situational factors remains an important aspect of any diagnostic procedure. Karls and O’Keefe 2008 provides a tool for practitioners to focus on the client’s interaction with the individual’s environment and the environmental impact on the mental illness. The PIE Manual takes into account the diagnostic information present in the DSM, but through identified factors provides a way for social workers to convey essential information about the client in the social context of the individual’s life. Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary (Campbell 2009) provides an invaluable guide to definitions and explanations of mental illness. This dictionary is written so that it can be understood by both psychiatrists and non-psychiatrists. The website of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides a rich resource for the latest health and mental health topics and other health-related information.

  • American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed., text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

    The DSM-IV-TR is the most current version of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This text revision integrates a review of the research on mental disorders since the publication of the DSM-IV in 1995. Updated information includes cultural, gender, age, prevalence, and familial data related to mental disorders. Treatment approaches are not stressed in this book, as it is a diagnostic and statistical manual only.

  • American Psychiatric Association. DSM-5: The future of psychiatric diagnosis.

    This web resource outlines the history, developments, and changes expected in DSM-5, which is scheduled for publication in 2013.

  • Campbell, R. J. 2009. Campbell’s psychiatric dictionary: A definitive dictionary of psychiatry. 9th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This ninth edition is a reference for all clinicians and students. It covers a full range of treatments for mental illness, from definitions to full explanations, making this more than just a dictionary of terms. The entries are clear and can be understood by non-psychiatrists.

  • International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

    The ICD is the standard diagnostic classification system for clinical use with all general epidemiological health management purposes. It is used to classify health problems and diseases on many types of records such as vital statistics and health records. Similar to the DSM, treatment approaches are not stressed in this work, as it is a diagnostic and statistical manual only.

  • Karls, J. M., and M. O’Keefe. 2008. The person-in-environment manual. Washington, DC: NASW.

    Known to most educators as the “PIE Manual.” Describes a diagnostic assessment system and identifies factors related to mental health that clearly focus on the person-in-environment. It was developed for social workers as an alternative/supplement for use in facilitating communication with other health, mental health, and public welfare disciplines. Factors related to the client’s situation are stressed.

  • National Institute of Mental Health.

    This is a government research site designed to provide publications related to topics in mental health, medications, and health-related matters that are applicable to practice and policy. This home page provides links to health topics, publications, clinical trials, and relevant statistics.

  • World Health Organization. 1992. The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

    ICD-10 provides descriptions, classifications, and diagnostic codes designed and utilized by the World Health Organization to classify mental and behavioral disorders within the international community (equivalent to the DSM-IV-TR).

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