How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker
Mental health social workers provide advocacy, counseling, and crisis intervention to patients.The need for mental health social workers continues to grow as more people seek help for mental, emotional, or substance misuse problems.
The benefits of becoming a mental health social worker include making a big difference in people’s lives and helping those who need assistance. Explore this guide to find out more about education, licensure, and potential salaries for this profession.
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Steps to Become a Mental Health Social Worker
Different paths to becoming a mental health social worker include earning a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology or sociology, or obtaining a master of social work. Social workers wanting to practice independently or at the clinical level also need state licensure along with a graduate degree in the field.
Generally, the educational, experience, and licensing process follows these steps:
- Complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW) or a Related Field
- Consider a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)
- Complete Post Degree Supervised Experience Requirements
- Apply for State Licensure
- Consider Additional Certifications and Credentials
Mental Health Social Worker Education Requirements
Depending on their professional practice goals, mental health social workers earn either a bachelor’s degree or MSW. When researching colleges and universities, make sure to focus on programs with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education.
Mental health social workers need a bachelor’s in social work or a related field for entry-level careers in the field. These include generalist positions assisting clients and connecting them with services and resources, along with basic case management.
Some employers or positions may require mental health social workers to complete an MSW, however a BSW can give students advanced standing in an MSW program.
The typical BSW curriculum offers courses in generalist social work practice, human behavior, and social welfare programs and policies. Students also complete field internships to gain hands-on experience under the supervision of a licensed social worker.
Master’s Degree in Social Work
Clinical social workers and those interested in independent practice need an MSW. Earning an MSW takes about two years, and the curriculum focuses on specialty areas, including mental health. In addition to course credits, programs require at least 900 hours of supervised field experience.
An MSW prepares graduates to manage large caseloads and perform clinical assessments and pursue supervisory and policy advocate roles.
MSW admission requires a bachelor’s degree in any discipline but may offer BSW-holders advanced standing, which can reduce the completion time to around one year.
Doctoral Degree in Social Work
While not required to become a mental health social worker, a doctoral degree – either a doctor of social work (DSW) or doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work – can help lead to advanced positions and higher salaries. Generally, those interested in university teaching positions or research earn a Ph.D., and students seeking advanced clinical skills and leadership roles choose a DSW. Those with DSWs may also pursue clinical teaching positions.
DSW programs may include clinical internships and dissertations. Ph.D. students focus on researching, writing, and defending their dissertations.
Complete Post Degree Supervised Experience Requirements
To become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), most states require post-master’s fieldwork. Fieldwork hours vary by state but generally range from 1,500-4,000 or two years of supervised experience. Several states offer licenses to those with a BSWs, usually requiring two years or 2,000-4,000 hours of fieldwork after a bachelor’s degree.
Fieldwork takes place in various settings, including hospitals, government and social services agencies, correctional facilities, outpatient clinics, and long-term care facilities. Licensed social workers supervise participants’ interactions with clients and oversee their work in case management, care coordination, and counseling.
Pursue Social Work Licensure
Getting a social work license requires passing a national examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). States require licenses at different educational and experience levels, and applicants should confirm with their state licensing board which exam to take and the registration procedure.
Social work licensure candidates typically follow the procedures listed on the ASWB website:
- Apply for licensure with their state board
- Pay the licensing fee
- Register and take the licensure exam with the ASWB
For examinees in most states, the ASWB will send an email authorizing the testing with scheduling instructions. The ASWB sells online practice tests that simulate the exam experience by using the same software and format.
Some states may require additional exams to those listed below.
- Degree/Experience Required: BSW, no experience
- Exam Fee: $230
- Exam Focus: Knowledge and skills for basic, generalist practice
- Degree/Experience Required: MSW, no experience
- Exam Fee: $230
- Exam Focus: Application of specialized knowledge and advanced skills
Advanced Generalist Exam
- Degree/Experience Required: MSW, two years of experience in a nonclinical setting
- Exam Fee: $260
- Exam Focus: Advanced generalist social work (including macro-level practice) in nonclinical settings
- Degree/Experience Required: MSW, two years of experience in a clinical setting
- Exam Fee: $260
- Exam Focus: Application of specialized clinical knowledge and advanced clinical skills
Apply for State Licensure
In most states, social work licensing candidates follow the procedures listed in the previous section (submit license application and fee with your state board and receive approval to register for an ASWB exam). Some states, including Texas, allow candidates to apply for licensure only after they take the exam. In this case, candidates apply for approval to take the exam, rather than licensure.
Differences in licensing procedures make it important for applicants to contact their state’s board of social work for specific information regarding license levels, requirements, and application procedures.
Consider Additional Social Work Certifications
While not required, additional social work certifications can help increase career opportunities and salaries. Licensed social workers can pursue National Association of Social Workers credentials in areas that include leadership, case management, clinical, gerontology, military, and youth and family.
Certifications demonstrate to clients and employers in-depth knowledge, dedication, and adherence to ethical standards. Some credentials require a BSW but most specify an MSW. Criteria vary by credential but may include post-degree supervised experience and continuing education hours.
Salary for Mental Health Social Workers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an annual average salary of $58,000 for mental health and substance abuse social workers. Salaries can range from $30,000-$97,000.
Earnings can depend on the workplace, client population, and geographical location. For example, in the top five highest-paying states — New Jersey, California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut — mental health and substance abuse social workers make average annual salaries between $71,650 and $99,390.
The top-paying 10 metro areas for social workers are located in California. Highest-paying non-metro areas include California’s eastern Sierra region, Hawaii/Kauai, and central east New York.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a social worker and a psychiatric social worker?
Social workers are professionals who help people navigate various life challenges, including social, economic, and mental health problems. Psychiatric social work is a specialization that assists clients with mental health and emotional issues.
What is the difference between a therapist and a social worker?
Social workers receive training in community-based interventions, which may include mental health therapy. Social workers also advocate for their clients and help them find additional services and resources. Therapists focus more narrowly on mental health diagnosis and treatment. Some social workers are also licensed therapists, so these roles commonly intersect.
Where do mental health social workers work?
The top workplaces for mental health social workers are outpatient care centers, individual and family services, local government agencies, residential facilities, and psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals.
What skills do you need to be a mental health social worker?
Mental health social workers need communication and listening skills to understand clients’ challenges and explain options. They also need compassion and patience under stress. Other skills include casework management and organization, plus problem-solving to refer clients to resources and services.
Reviewed By: Danielle Golightly, LMSW
Danielle Golightly is a licensed social worker in Michigan with over 10 years of experience. She is currently the family advocate at a child advocacy center where she works with individuals and families from diverse backgrounds. Previously, Danielle served as a victim advocate at the same agency, providing crisis intervention and psychoeducation services to families impacted by child abuse. She has also supervised graduate-level social work students and mentored undergraduates throughout their internships.
Danielle is passionate about child welfare, victim advocacy, and trauma.
Danielle is a paid member of the Red Ventures freelance Education Integrity Network.