Date of Paper


Type of Paper

Clinical research paper

Degree Name

Master of Social Work (M.S.W.)


Social Work

First Advisor

Lance T. Peterson


Social Work


The beliefs about how to ethically treat those with mental illness have fluctuated considerably throughout the centuries in the United States. As a part of the community mental health movement, some mental health treatment is now provided in residential settings. The purpose of this study is to gain further understanding of social workers’ practice of professional boundaries within this specific mental health treatment modality. Using a qualitative design, six Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSWs) employed within Minnesota Intensive Residential Treatment Services (IRTS) facilities were interviewed. Data were analyzed using inductive grounded theory and open coding which revealed the findings and suggested implications for future research and social work practice. The findings indicate that individuals’ understanding of the professional boundary concept is largely socially-constructed. Social workers in residential mental health treatment settings practice professional boundaries in three main ways: 1) informing clients of their professional versus personal role, 2) using limited self-disclosure, and 3) role modeling/teaching generalizable skills. In addition, the social workers described how their practice was influenced by the unique aspects of the treatment modality – providing 24-hour care for clients in a home-like setting. Finally, the data show that social workers believe a consensus in professional boundary practice among the IRTS facility staff is best practice, but this does not always occur due to staff’s differing professional roles and levels of experience. These findings indicate both the need for continued research as well as practical implications for social work practice – namely the importance of having frequent discussions about professional boundary practice within mental health treatment teams.

Included in

Social Work Commons