Illinois Breaks Barriers in Mental Health Workforce, Achieving Remarkable Growth in Licensed Social Workers (LSWs)

Feb 6, 2024

Map of Illinois with red pin on the capitol of Springfield

Thanks in large part to a bill signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker, the number of licensed non-independent social workers has increased by 100 percent since Dec 1, 2021 in Illinois, exceeding the 10,000 mark for the first time. In light of severe mental health workforce shortages in the state as well as issues of diversity within the profession, this achievement is a first step to addressing an alarming shortage of mental health professionals in Illinois.

Since passage of a bill that removed a known biased exam—the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) MSW exam—as a requirement for licensed non-independent social workers (i.e., licensed social workers or LSWs) in Illinois, numbers have risen from an initial 5,037 LSWs in December 2021, to 7,845 just six months after the new law’s implementation. These numbers continued to increase to a new milestone of 10,086 new LSWs in Illinois on December 1, 2023. Most notably, 12% of these licensed LSWs come from outside the state, drawn by opportunities presented by this legislative change. These professionals are now either serving Illinois clients via telehealth or have relocated to the state, contributing significantly to the local workforce.

This legislative achievement marks a pivotal moment in ongoing efforts by Illinois to address workforce challenges and address inequities in the mental health sector to ensure that all Illinois residents have access to high-quality social work services. Illinois has made a clear statement about its commitment to removing barriers for skilled and dedicated individuals entering the profession by eliminating a biased testing requirement from licensure in the state.

NASW-Illinois Chapter Executive Director Joel L. Rubin, MSW, LSW, ACSW, CAE, stated, “This is a monumental success for social work in Illinois. It underscores our belief in the importance of accessible mental health services and the need to diversify and strengthen our professional community. We commend Governor Pritzker and the General Assembly for their commitment and dedication to improving the lives of Illinois residents through mental health workforce development that grows and diversifies the talent pool in Illinois.”

In the previous spring 2023 session, the state went even further by passing a first-in-the-nation law that creates an alternative to the ASWB clinical exam for licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) which went into effect on January 1, 2024. While data on its impact is not yet available, we are anticipating significant gains for that license as well.

While the NASW-Illinois Chapter celebrates this legislative success as a major step forward in ensuring a robust and responsive social work profession, we recognize that more work remains to address the significant workforce shortages in mental health in Illinois. We are eager to work with the state to address other barriers by implementing paid field placements and child care assistance for students, expanding loan forgiveness for contract workers in social work, providing low-cost clinical supervision opportunities, expanding social work programs to address the growing need for specialization in crisis interventions, creating new programs to recruit high school students to the field, and a “Grow Your Own” program to not only increase the number of social workers in Illinois but diversify the workforce even further as we build.

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