U of A School of Social Work Expands Services to Arkansans

June 22, 2023  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Johanna Thomas, director of the U of A School of Social Work, gets a flu shot at a clinic put on at The Jones Center for Families in Springdale with funds from a grant she helped to write.
Johanna Thomas, director of the U of A School of Social Work, gets a flu shot at a clinic put on at The Jones Center for Families in Springdale with funds from a grant she helped to write.

Grant writing is a team sport, according to Johanna Thomas. And based on numbers, a grant-writing box score, if you will, the University of Arkansas associate professor of social work could be called the team captain.

Last year, Thomas and her campus partners and state agencies she works with combined to bring in nearly $12.5 million in grants. Since joining the U of A faculty in 2015, she and her collaborators have been awarded $40 million in grants. Thomas is also the director of the School of Social Work.

These grants benefit the people of Arkansas. They pay for expanded health and mental health services, training in evidence-based mental health practices for mental health professionals and program evaluation. They address issues that include mental illnesses, substance use disorders, serious emotional disturbances, co-occurring disorders, trauma, domestic violence, LGBTQIA issues and veteran status. The bottom line, the ultimate goal, is to get services to people who previously did not have access to them.

"To be successful with grant applications, you have to surround yourself with a team that is supportive and understands the process and has the same mission and drive that you have," Thomas said. "We sometimes have a team of up to 15 people. Each application can take up to 200 hours of time. I have collaborators in 18 departments across two colleges at the University of Arkansas and with two other outside universities. Without your team, you can't do it. And, it's really about growing relationships with agencies. The more you write, the better you get and the more successful you are."


Fulfilling the Mission

The School of Social Work offers both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in social work. The master's degree offers four program options, including a 12-month program that is delivered 100% online.

Grant-writing dovetails nicely with the university's land-grant mission to serve the state. And, according to its mission statement, the School of Social Work strives for "relentless community engagement because we truly believe Arkansas can be a land of opportunity."

"For me, it's very much how can I assist my community, how can I make things better in whatever community and state I'm working in," said Thomas, who is currently working on seven awarded grants. "I go after grants because the agencies I work with serve some of the most vulnerable Arkansans. All my collaborations are about ways of increasing services to all Arkansans, and this includes physical health services, mental health services and courts."

These grants allow community mental health centers to hire additional staff, both in social work and medical positions. Two grants totaling almost $6 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2020 allowed the purchase of an RV for use as a mobile mental health unit.

"We help agencies put their plans on paper, and then we get to see what they have done," Thomas said. "We physically watch people using the things we said we were going to do. There are now mobile physical health units all over the state. When you take an extra 1,200 people a year who didn't have access and now they do, that kind of keeps you going."

Grants obtained by Thomas' team also expand access to veteran's courts that provide a voluntary intervention program for veterans involved in the criminal justice system because of underlying, unmanaged substance use or mental health disorders. Other grants have expanded adult drug courts, too, Thomas said, which also offer voluntary intervention programs with a similar structure to the veteran's court system. Both are designed to help people get treatment and mental health services as a diversion from incarceration.

"They ensure people have the ability for a fresh start," Thomas said. "People are able to face the charges against them and work with a judge and mental health providers to become productive members of society. Our work is helping make sure they have access to these services."


Need is Great

Every county in Arkansas is a designated mental health professional shortage area according to the federal Health Resources & Services Administration, Thomas said.

"There is a dearth of mental health professionals," she said. "Agencies are always looking for them. There are entire swaths of counties in Arkansas that have no licensed social workers at all. The mental health professional crisis is real. There are 5,000 licensed certified social workers in the state, and 50% of adults at some point will need mental health services. That's 1.5 million people."

In one of her collaborative efforts with the College of Education and Health Professions, Thomas worked on a 2017 grant that has trained 36 professionals who specialize in helping people with disabilities transition from high school to post-secondary education or work. The grant funded master's students in special education and communication disorders. The grant was renewed in 2021 for 31 master's students and can now be used by social work students, as well.


Evaluating Programs

Under her most recent grant from the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, Thomas is evaluating Arkansas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, including how employment plays into the assistance program.

"I'm working with them to expand programming and to figure out what Arkansans need," Thomas said. "There are less than a thousand people on TANF right now, and we know the poverty rate is so much higher than that."

Her work also extends to the state legislature on work to change the billing structure of how community mental health centers are funded. A goal is to find funding mechanisms through the federal government that supplement state funding. The current and previous presidential administrations have invested significant funds in mental health services, Thomas said, primarily through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Thomas and the faculty and staff members she collaborates with conduct needs assessments for their community partners. They speak with staff clients.

"We go into the community," she said. "We get to hear those stories. Last November, we went to one of the clinics and sat with the clients to get flu vaccines. Sometimes, we hear about people we serve ending up being appointed to advisory boards. They go from being a client to helping advise service providers. Community boards often have to be made up of 51% of community members."


Opportunities in Social Work

Going into private practice is attractive for licensed certified social workers, Thomas said, but exacerbates the shortage of community-based services. Expanding telehealth opportunities have allowed licensed certified social workers to work from home and from other states, and that could help increase services.

"We've always had a shortage of providers, and it has gotten worse post-pandemic," Thomas said. "The pandemic created overwhelming grief and crisis."

Grants cover a diverse array of services, programs and needs, Thomas said. She may get asked to help with a grant for everything from a day camp for at-risk teens to a program on Marshallese outreach. Grant-writing can be a more tenuous path to take in social work, but for Thomas the rewards are great.

"It's important for students to know that what's so exciting about this particular line of work is you get to reinvent your job every day," Thomas said. "You are never siloed to one area of social work. It's absolutely incredible; I get to see so many sides of social work I wouldn't see if I was a clinician."

For more information on becoming a social worker, visit the U of A School of Social Work website. Information about the online master's program is also available online.

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at heidiw@uark.edu or 479-575-7239.

Online Learner Blog Home


Master of Social Work Advanced Standing

Earning a master’s degree is an investment in your professional future. It will prepare the bachelor's-level social worker to practice independently and move into supervisory and leadership roles.

Program Page


Social Work News

October 14, 2022

August 15, 2022

November 22, 2021

July 28, 2021

December 4, 2020

July 10, 2020

June 9, 2020

May 11, 2020

October 12, 2017

August 12, 2015