ASU social work students in unique training program at Phoenix Children's

New cohort experiencing both medical, mental health work with families


A group of Arizona State University social work students have been in a unique program at Phoenix Children’s that combines training for hospital social work with mental health services.

The 10 Master of Social Work students are the first in a new initiative that aims to fill a gaping need.

“We have a national and state shortage of social workers — and specifically social workers who provide mental health services,” said Sarah Vitse Doyle, a School of Social Work clinical assistant professor who is collaborating with Phoenix Children’s on the partnership.

“More licensed clinical social workers are needed — those who can have a private practice, serve mental health patients and bill Medicare.”

The program pairs training for a licensed clinical social work certification with traditional hospital social work. The students spend one day a week in hospital social work and one day dedicated to mental health services. 

Traditional health care social work might involve discharge planning or helping patients understand the medications.

Two of the students are working with young people who are exploring their gender expression, developing programming for group and one-on-one therapy. Another student has been working to analyze the suicidality of young patients.

“Their work is phenomenal, serving a community that absolutely needs mental health care,” Doyle said.

While the hospital is for children, the students are serving whole families, she said.

“That’s why health care social work is important — it’s a holistic approach to the whole family unit,” she said.

The program is fully paid for and the students are employees of the hospital, she said. The school is currently interviewing candidates for the next cohort. About 90 people applied for a spot in the current group.

“There’s a tremendous desire within our profession to have this type of training,” said Doyle, whose role is to broaden the School of Social Work’s reach to all hospitals. The school is part of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

The Phoenix Children’s cohort is getting training in evidence-based modalities such as trauma-informed counseling and play therapy.

The students meet one-on-one with a field instructor as well as together as group to debrief from their difficult work, and they also fill in a weekly journal that prompts them to do mindfulness and self-reflection exercises, Doyle said.

“The student in the ER did a suicide-risk evaluation on a 6-year-old. That weighs on you. That is 100% the responsibility of being a social worker,” she said. “We attempt to be very informed about self-care and how we can promote that within our profession, which begins with our students.”

Doyle said that the Phoenix Children’s program highlights the interdisciplinary nature of health care social work.

“Social workers in health care settings are well positioned to work with physical therapists, physicians and nurses, and we work with all of them through one patient,” she said.

“We find ourselves to be the glue. We really want to not only bolster our profession but the other professions as well.”

One of the students in the cohort, Shantel Hinnen, has been working with families in the neonatal intensive care unit.

That’s why health care social work is important — it’s a holistic approach to the whole family unit.

— Clinical Assistant Professor Sarah Vitse Doyle

On the medical side, she has been working with the unit’s social worker to assess families’ needs.

“We talk to them and see how we can support them, and what factors are causing them stress — is it financial things or emotional? And then it’s how we can help them, especially with the added strain of COVID, where no one can see the baby,” Hinnen said.

In the unit, she is able to refer some mothers to the hospital’s Center for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, where she sees patients on her clinical side.

“I get to build rapport and say, ‘Would you like to do outpatient therapy?’ It’s mostly moms that recently had a baby in the NICU or maybe are still pregnant but have a baby diagnosed with a fetal anomaly, and we help them through that process,” she said.

“It’s cool because there is no time constraint — so we can work with them through early childhood.”

As a middle school student, Hinnen had thought about being an obstetrician.

“Then I realized I hated biology and didn’t do well with blood, so this has been a full-circle moment where I realized that working with moms and babies is what I wanted to do all along,” she said.

Student Luis DeLeon has been working in the solid organ transplant department.

“A lot of what I did and continue to do this semester is to check on patients and establish resources to help them determine if they need anything or if there is anything that is preventing them from discharging from the hospital,” he said.

On the clinical side, he shadowed a therapist last semester to learn how to build rapport and started seeing patients on his own this semester, including working with a patient who has autism.

“One surprise to me was that I didn’t know I would like medical social work until I started doing it,” he said.

“I get to work in a hospital setting but also be a therapist.”

Top photo courtesy of Phoenix Children's

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