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Brief History of Human Service Education

"During the late 1950s and 1960s, there were dramatic changes in the area of helping those in need. Populations like the poor, the unemployed, children in need, the elderly, the disabled, the substance abuser and others began to be recognized as needing social and rehabilitation services. About this time, new legislation mandated that those formerly served in state mental hospitals would now be deinstitutionalized and would henceforth be seen in the communities in which they lived. It was not long before it became obvious that the traditional human resources would not meet the needs of the helping services being offered.

The community based mental health system necessitated that professionals be trained in a different manner. While the provision of mental health services was undergoing these changes, the civil rights movement brought attention to social justice and equity issues. Consumers of social services became more involved in advocating for themselves and in creating services that would meet their own needs. Thus "grass roots" (started by the clients) level activism created opportunities for new approaches to human services. Amidst all these changes, a new class of workers was born.

Originally called paraprofessionals, these workers were often those who had been served by the helping system and had a better sense of the qualities and skills that were important for helpers to possess. Thus, what had begun as an informal orientation to helping would soon become formalized as competency based mental health/human services training.

To meet the demand for and the availability of educational programs based on the development of competencies, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1956, provided the resources to establish the first associate degree program in mental health at Purdue University. This would be the forerunner of human services programs across the country.

It was not long before two-year colleges were offering human services (sometimes called mental health) degrees. Four year colleges were not far behind in developing and offering bachelors degrees in human services.

Today the number of certificate, associate, baccalaureate and more recently graduate degrees in human services has grown to more than five hundred academic programs. Associate level human service degrees continue to be the majority of degrees awarded for human services." (NOHS)

The pioneers of human services training and education programs felt that the answer to the workforce shortage was not to train another group of specialized professionals but to develop an entirely new kind of worker, the "generalist".

Generalists are trained in a wide variety of helping interventions so that they may provide direct services to individuals or groups with a diversity of needs. These generalists also work in many different service settings integrating and coordinating the efforts of specialized professionals. Although graduates may vary from program to program in response to local needs, human service generalists are trained in basic helping skills essential to the helping relationship.

These skills include:

  • interviewing                                                                
  • observing and recording pertinent information
  • conducting groups                                                
  • implementing treatment plans
  • consulting with other workers & agencies                       
  • mobilizing and utilizing community resources
  • problem solving                                                          
  • advocating for clients
  • direct support
  • social skill training

A major component of all human service education is experiential learning or learning-by-doing. Programs provide extensive field-based experiences or practica (internships) in a variety of community agencies. Such practica allow the student to integrate knowledge and skill and thereby demonstrate competency.