Some problems can have large impacts, and still go unnoticed by the public and policymakers. ASWB’s racist exams for social work licensure are a great example. When people learn of the problem, they tend to be rightly horrified. But most people don’t know about the problem. A letter to the editor of your local newspaper can be a great way to raise awareness of this issue. Here’s a quick guide to writing one.
Letters to the editor must be brief. Some papers limit them to 300 words or less. Even when letters can be longer, most readers don’t read to the end. So it’s important to use your limited space wisely and maximize its impact. Below is information that can be helpful in making your case.
Three key principles
If you keep these principles in mind as you write, your letter to the editor is more likely to get published, draw readers, and have an impact.
- Short sentences. They’re easier to read. And they have more sticking power.
- Hook readers immediately. Don’t build up to your point or lead with your credentials. Most readers will not get that far. State clearly what you’re advocating for, and then explain.
- Make it personal. Be clear about what the issue is, and your connection to it. Even better, make it personal to the reader: Why should they care?
In addition, it can sometimes be helpful to tie your letter to recent coverage of mental health care issues in the paper you’re writing to. But this isn’t necessary. If it looks like you’re straining to make that kind of connection, it may do more harm than good.
There are lots of ways to structure your letter. Any way that works is a good way. Here’s one structure that I have found useful:
- Personal connection
And here’s a hypothetical example of that structure in action. Obviously you would leave out the section headers in the real thing:
Letter to the editor: Addressing our mental health crisis
California has a youth mental health crisis. This is partly due to a massive shortage of mental health professionals. But we also have thousands of qualified people ready to get to work. The only thing holding them back is a racist exam that has no connection to safe or effective practice. The state should get rid of it.
The Association of Social Work Boards develops social work exams used around the country. Their own report this summer showed that Black examinees fail their first exam attempts three times as often as White examinees do.
At the same time, the Board of Behavioral Sciences notes that almost 2,000 social workers are stuck in exam purgatory. They’ve finished a graduate degree and years of supervised experience. They’re more likely to be bilingual than current licensees. They are likely to be safe and effective. The exam has never demonstrated any ability to predict safety or effectiveness in clinical practice.
I see the effects of this needless shortage every day. My own caseload of [number] needy individuals at [setting] means that there’s no way I can provide them all the care they deserve. When my coworkers leave, we’re often not able to replace them.
More licensed clinical social workers means more people in treatment for substance abuse. It means more people with mental health needs connected with housing and other social services. It means a better, more effective safety net when people are struggling with severe mental health issues.
Governor Newsom should immediately declare a state of emergency for California’s mental health crisis. He can then use his emergency powers to demand that the BBS license those social workers held back from helping our communities by nothing more than a racist, ineffective barrier to licensure.
Firstname Lastname, LCSW
Mental health clinician, First County Services
[Be sure to include your title and credentials if relevant. Also include contact information that the paper can use to contact you and verify the letter’s authenticity. That contact information is typically not published with the letter, but for clarity you can mark it as “Contact information not for publication.”]
Talking points for your letter to the editor
Newspapers generally don’t want copy-and-paste letters that are also appearing in other publications. They want your personal experiences and ideas, in your own words. So here, I’ve listed some talking points that may be helpful as you build your letter.
1. Why the topic is important
- [State, territory, or district] is experiencing a mental health crisis.
- Even those who have insurance often can’t access care when they need it.
- So-called “deaths of despair” – suicides and drug overdoses – have risen dramatically.
- The problem is especially severe in children’s mental health.
- Put simply, there aren’t enough qualified therapists to meet the demand.
2. The specific problem
- One reason? To achieve licensure, therapists must first pass a clinical exam.
- No one would argue with the need to ensure that mental health professionals are safe and competent. But their education and supervised training already establish that.
- This summer, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) released a devastating report on their own exams, including the ASWB Clinical Exam used for mental health licensure.
- That report showed that more than 4 out of every 5 white examinees pass the exam on their first attempt. For Black examinees, it’s about 2 of every 5.
- The ASWB exam, like all clinical exams in mental health care, has never been shown to connect with safety or effectiveness in practice. It’s a test of skill at taking that test, and nothing more.
- ASWB’s efforts to contain the fallout from their report have been wildly misleading. They have not demonstrated any real effort at accountability. Instead, they seem to be deflecting responsibility at every turn. Rather than even acknowledging that there could be an issue with their exams, they are blaming “upstream factors.”
3. The solution
- [State leader, usually a Governor] should declare an emergency in mental health care, and use their emergency rulemaking authority to set aside the ASWB Clinical Exam while the state looks for a more permanent solution.
- This would immediately allow those therapists stuck in clinical exam purgatory to get to work meeting the [state/territory/region]’s mental health needs.
- Legislators should provide a permanent pathway to licensure that does not involve racist barriers.
- The social workers who have completed every requirement except the clinical exam are vetted, knowledgeable, and ready to serve. They’re also more likely to be bilingual, and tend to be more diverse than the current licensee population.
- There is no evidence that this would come at a cost to public safety. Quite the opposite – access to qualified mental health care from a diverse group of providers improves public safety.
By raising key points succinctly, clearly, and in a way that’s grounded in your own experience, your letter to the editor can have a real impact. On this or any issue.