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Thompson School Stories: Dawna Nelson

Thompson School Graduate, Instrumental in Passing of Major Alabama Legislation

Dawna Nelson PhotoThompson School graduate, Dr. Dawna Nelson, used the leadership, policy, and organizational skills she crafted in the Doctorate of Social Welfare program to help pass major social work legislation in the state of Alabama.

Following the completion of her PhD in 2016, Dr. Nelson returned to Alabama, where she currently serves as an Associate Professor of Social Work at her other alma mater, Alabama State University. In Spring 2022, Dr. Nelson was appointed to serve as a Research Fellow with the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE). There she was charged with conducting research on workforce development and contributing to policy initiatives to address the severe shortage of mental health providers in the state of Alabama. Over the next year, she played a crucial role in the passage of House Bill 56 (HB56; 2023) which allows Alabama’s Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) the ability to diagnose within their scope of practice. 

The significance of this bill is that prior to HB56, Alabama was the only state in the nation that did not allow LCSWs to diagnose. Not surprisingly, the state also sustained the most severe shortage of mental health providers in the nation, with just one clinician for every 850 residents. Allowing social workers the ability to diagnose was an essential next step in meeting the basic mental health needs of all Alabamians. 

Dr. Nelson shared that creating a unified message was imperative to moving the legislation forward. She stated, “There were so many side effects to this problem: social worker pay, the disproportionate impact on rural areas, insurance companies, telehealth. At the end of the day though it was about making sure people had access to mental health care when they needed it, so I had to create a way to get people across the state to embrace addressing mental health shortages as our core message.” 

Dr. Nelson traveled around the state presenting at conferences, holding planning meetings with all of Alabama’s accredited social work programs, and creating literature to share the unified messaging with Social Workers, aligned health professionals, and legislators. “I really relied on the experiences and skills I gained as a doctoral student at Thompson School,” she said, “especially my writing skills. I had a chance to sharpen my ability to translate large amounts of data and research into a more manageable snapshot of a problem, while still keeping all those important nuances. That is not easy to do.” 

HB56 passed in May and took effect in August 2023. Dr. Nelson continues to serve as an expert in workforce development for ACHE and is currently exploring partnerships with state and local agencies to develop novel methods that will meet the growing social work workforce demands in the state of Alabama.


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