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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 2
May 1999

Improving Referrals to Mental Health

What constitutes a "viable" referral to a mental health agency? Because things work in slightly different ways in North Carolina's 40 area mental health programs, there is no one answer to this question—depending on the mental health (MH) center, you'll get a different response about what DSS workers need to know. The best solution to this might be, as Jay Taylor suggests, to invite representatives of your local MH agency to conduct an inservice training on this subject at DSS.

While a tailor-made workshop is the ideal, there are certain things you can do to increase the chances that the referrals you make will work for you, your counterparts at mental health, and the families you serve. The following suggestions emerged from interviews Practice Notes conducted with several practitioners from area mental health programs.

  1. Inform mental health about the reason for the referral. Without this, mental health workers must ask parents and children why they have come to the clinic. If the person doesn't know (or claims not to know) beyond "I'm here because DSS sent me," MH will be hampered during the intake screening. For example, if the referral is for sexual abuse but the client denies sexual abuse, MH often will move on in the evaluation rather than "fishing" for an answer. A phone call or a letter could provide this information.

  2. Consider using a client-information release form. If there were a form clients could sign allowing DSS to release information to other agencies, DSS would be free to list the presenting problem as part of the referral, including a court order, if applicable. For example, the referral could state that the client needs to be evaluated for substance abuse, providing detailed information. Ample detail in the referral gives MH a better idea where to begin in treatment.

  3. Include appropriate client contact information. If a work number is obtained, note what times are suitable to call the workplace. If a client does not have a phone, list an alternate phone number of a friend, etc.

  4. List other agencies and professionals involved in the case.

  5. Clearly state your agency's expectations for the referral outcome, as well as what your continuing role would be in the case.


Personal communications with: Ursula Nerdrum, MSW, Adult Therapist, Franklin County Mental Health Center; Joyce Smith, B.S. Clinical Case Manager, Child and Family Services, Warren County Mental Health Center; Anita Toney, RNC, LPC, Director, Warren County Mental Health Center

1999 Jordan Institute for Families