Mental Health Social Worker

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions for social workers are projected to rise 16% over the next decade, double the projected growth rate for the economy as a whole. This increase includes mental health social workers, who contribute to outpatient care centers, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, colleges and universities, and even ambulatory healthcare systems.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions for social workers are projected to rise 16% over the next decade, double the projected growth rate for the economy as a whole.

As a mental health social worker, you will work one-on-one with patients to identify toxic behaviors and construct positive coping mechanisms. Social workers can help rebuild communities ravaged by a rise in substance abuse, depression, and common chemical imbalances such as anxiety and bipolar disorder. They also assist patients through difficult family and professional hardships, like the loss of a family member, divorce, job loss, or demotion.

As a social worker, you can become an advocate for preventive initiatives to improve mental healthcare overall and bring awareness to mental health issues pertinent to your local community. As a mental health social worker, you can make a substantial difference for individuals in need.

The day-to-day responsibilities of a mental health social worker revolve around patient consultations. They work one-on-one with clients, individual families, or small focus groups to assess patient issues and needs, strengths and weaknesses, and provide community support systems and networks available for assistance. As a counselor, your chief concern is the mental stability of your patients and providing care to individuals and families seeking help. Social workers often provide assistance in tumultuous situations to help children and spouses through divorce, mediate custody battles, and organize healthcare treatments.

What's the Difference Between a Mental Health Social Worker and a Mental Health Counselor?

While mental health social workers and mental health counselors address similar issues, they work in different environments. The key distinction between mental health counselors and social workers is that the latter is often assigned patients in a moment of trauma. Both engage with students, parents, and children, but mental health social workers are typically called in to mediate life-changing events or dangerous behaviors. They offer a range of assistance services, while mental health counselors assist patients that electively choose mental healthcare.

Both types of assistance operate in similar settings like campus offices, healthcare institutions, private residences, or neutral locations to encourage patient trust. Social workers can enter the private sector as well, creating private practices oriented around specific communities or issues that include underserved neighborhoods or substance abuse. However, successful private practice is based on one's prior history in the public sector. Whether in the public or private realm, mental health social workers and counselors work in tandem to reach underserved individuals.

Education Needed to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Depending on the career path you choose, different educational requirements will apply. Most positions in social work or counseling require at least a bachelor's degree. In social work, the bachelor's qualifies you for entry-level administrative positions and basic case-worker status. To enter clinical work, you will need to continue your education with a master's degree, which also allows for specializations like substance abuse.

Many schools require a field research seminar prior to the practicum to prepare participants for independent analysis.

A mental health and substance abuse social worker degree trains you for the current pandemic of drug addiction affecting communities nationwide. You will develop analytical skills regarding behavioral and social stressors, monitor substance use, and implement preventative strategies to help patients cope. Other education requirements include counseling techniques for single patient and group environments, psychopathology and neuroscience, and the foundations of clinical research.

While obtaining your master's degree, you will need to complete supervised consultations to demonstrate your skills. Many schools require a field research seminar prior to the practicum to prepare participants for independent analysis. The master's degree culminates with a final internship at a local institution, such as a hospital, mental health facility, or school. The following degree synopses detail the levels of education and degree specializations capable at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels.

  • Bachelor's Degree in Mental Health Social Work

    An online bachelor's degree in social work prepares you to work as an entry-level social worker, with training in welfare programs, behavioral and social issues, and the foundations of social justice. You can specialize in substance abuse, public health, or child welfare and become a caseworker, probation officer, or substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor.

  • Master's Degree in Mental Health Social Work

    Continuing your education with an online master's degree in mental health social work allows you to acquire specific specializations and qualify for higher positions in the field. You can study medical and public health, mental health, and substance abuse to become a clinical social worker, a school social worker or a counselor.

  • Doctoral Degree in Mental Health Social Work

    With a doctoral degree in mental health social work, you will be qualified to pursue advanced positions in academia, social work education, and management. Students delve into social work theory, quantitative research, and teaching pedagogy to prepare for a career in research or education.

Accreditation for Mental Health Social Work Programs

No matter which level of education you pursue, program accreditation is very important. As you evaluate prospective schools, be sure to limit your applications to schools that have been regionally or nationally accredited by one of the six regional accreditation bodies certified by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Counsel on Social Work Education (CSWE) also has a set of standards of education and training for social work programs. The CSWE is the only accrediting body specifically devoted to social work, and its accreditation is required for hiring at most institutions and healthcare facilities. Check your specific school for accreditation, or search for potential schools directly in the CSWE's directory of accredited programs.

Licensure and Practicum Requirements to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Another level of accreditation required prior to entering the professional arena is a license in social work. As a profession regulated on the state level, the specific criteria for licensure can vary. The American Counseling Association lists state licensure boards, and you can prepare for your future career by acquainting yourself with the local licensing bodies responsible for your area and profession.

A clinical social work license -- the highest level of licensure in social work -- requires a master's degree and successful completion of the ASWB's clinical exam.

Though specific license titles differ by state, social workers and counselors undergo similar qualification standards directly related to the applicant's educational and professional background. Licensure at the bachelor's and master's degree level requires you to pass an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) and to complete a professional internship or practicum. Additionally, to qualify to sit for the master's exam, many states require a minimum of two years of professional experience.

A clinical social work license -- the highest level of licensure in social work -- requires a master's degree and successful completion of the ASWB's clinical exam. The ASWB charges $230 to sit for the bachelor's and master's exams, and $260 for the clinical exam. Similarly, counselor licensing requires a master's degree, 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, and a passing score on the National Counselor Examination.

Mental health social worker education requirements have standardized many state regulations, though the level of education necessary to enter or administer in the field depends on the state's resources and expectations. Consequently, it is important to know your state's requirements prior to entering a program. When changing states, you must reapply for licensure even if your qualifications match or exceed the licensing regulations in your new location. You can also become licensed simultaneously in more than one state. To maintain licensure, you must complete continuing education courses (typically between 20-40 credits) and pay for state licensure renewal (between $75-$175, depending on license type) every two years.

Given the variety of institutions and government and private programs that rely on mental health social workers and counselors, the field provides multiple employment opportunities. Specialties under the umbrella of mental health social work include young adult mental health, substance abuse, geriatric and child welfare, and social work jurisprudence.

Multiple states, including California and Indiana, face extreme shortages of social workers in mental health because of the spike in opioid abuse and dwindling mental healthcare resources nationwide.

For those interested in helping students and young adults, social work liaisons and counseling positions are available at all levels of education, from public K-12 to private and charter institutions. Colleges and universities also need social worker assistance to address community issues like mental health, abuse, and drug use.

Mental health and substance abuse social worker jobs are particularly important today. Multiple states, including California and Indiana, face extreme shortages of social workers in mental health because of the spike in opioid abuse and dwindling mental healthcare resources nationwide. Minority communities and rural dwellers are particularly underserved, as a lack of institutional infrastructure and in some cases social stigmas prevent proactive treatment.

Average Salary by Experience for Licensed Clinical Social Workers
Entry Level (0-5 Years) $50,000
Mid-Level (5-10 Years) $56,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $60,000
Late (20+ Years) $64,000
Source: PayScale (June 2018)

How to Find a Job as a Licensed Social Worker

As you enter the job market, state licensure will be the most important requirement on your applications. To receive state licensure, you will need to pass the relevant ASWB exams and internship, as well as any practicum requirements (check your individual state's social worker requirements or counseling regulations for details). In addition to licensure, joining relevant professional associations will provide access to relevant networking opportunities and job postings.

To receive state licensure, you will need to pass the relevant ASWB exams and internship, as well as any practicum requirements

The National Association of Social Workers offers continuing education opportunities to community members, as well as a career center and a specific NASW certification to give you a competitive edge in the job market. The Clinical Social Work Association similarly provides job listings and collaborates with numerous state-run clinical associations. Likewise, the American Society of Addiction Medicine provides networking opportunities and chapter events for local and national meetings.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers by Industry
Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Outpatient Care Centers 25,140 $45,140
Individual and Family Services 17,100 $46,190
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 13,060 $38,480
Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospital 11,690 $50,830
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 10,300 $52,830
  • Association of Social Work Boards The ASWB is a nonprofit organization that provides the exams required for most state licensure. Here, you can volunteer for leadership and governance positions to maintain standards of excellence throughout the field.
  • American Council for School Social Work Join the ACSSW as a student ($60 yearly membership) or as a professional ($95-$110) and access resources to deepen your understanding of social work initiatives. You can access teaching tools, read ACSSW publications, and present at the association's annual conferences to give back to the community.
  • School Social Work Association of America The SSWAA offers the rare benefit of between $250,000-$1,000,000 in professional liability insurance for members from Forrest T. Jones and Company. The SSWAA pushes advocacy programs with state and national government bodies and provides funding for local chapter initiatives.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Designed for both patients and professionals, the SAMHSA operates several campaigns to increase awareness and combat stigmas related to mental health treatment.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness The NAMI sponsors a variety of programs, addressing mental illness in all ages, with a focus on veterans' groups and minority communities. As a member, stay up to date on the latest mental health issues and take part in awareness events.