Social workers provide a wide spectrum of direct services to the public, from counseling students with behavioral problems to developing treatment plans for those struggling with substance abuse. This hands-on support has helped countless people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds take charge of their health and well-being, leading to a higher quality of life.
While many associate social work careers with case management and clinical settings, the field offers a variety of employment options for those with the right qualifications. In fact, an estimated 65% of all mental health services in the U.S. are provided by clinical social workers, according to research published in the journal Health Affairs. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in social work and mental health, it’s important to understand how these two disciplines are intertwined and which roles will allow you to make a real difference in your community.
Social work and mental health
From the very beginning, social work and mental health have been inextricably linked. The social work field can trace its roots back to the turn of the 20th century, when the first social work class was offered at Columbia University, as the National Association of Social Workers explained. Less than a decade later, sweeping mental health reform in the U.S. drew greater attention to psychological disorders, leading to the creation of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. This agency, later renamed Mental Health America, helped facilitate more than 100 child guidance clinics and advocated for mental illness awareness through research, public communication and policy crafting. Thanks to the MHA’s contributions, the U.S. successfully passed the National Mental Health Act in 1947, which established the National Institute of Mental Health and brought significant attention to the study of psychological, behavioral and emotional problems.
In the years since its inception, the social work field has been on the frontlines of countless cultural, economic and health-related causes, including Social Security, unemployment benefits and disability pay. Alongside advocating for fair and equitable health care programs, many social work practitioners also assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses, behavioral disorders and emotional issues. Some examples include:
- Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions
- Child abuse, neglect and behavioral problems
- Addiction, substance abuse and alcoholism
- Significant life events, including divorce, bereavement and terminal illnesses
- Coping with unemployment, homelessness and long-term disabilities
Mental health social workers support individuals, families and communities as they seek to overcome challenges that negatively impact their well-being. For example, by addressing a patient’s substance abuse issues, social workers can help recovering addicts find new employment, obtain affordable housing and take advantage of available mental health services. Since each client has different needs and preferences, social work professionals must focus on cultivating strong relationships built on trust, transparency and compassion. This is particularly important when treating people with a diagnosed mental illness, as they may be more sensitive to certain experiences and forms of communication. While social workers of every type are concerned with mental health, some roles come with specialized requirements that fall outside the norm.
Key roles in mental health social work
The social work field is full of career opportunities for those interested in mental health research, treatment and prevention. In fact, demand for social workers who specialize in mental health and substance abuse is only growing — employment in these roles is expected to increase 18% between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As more people seek treatment for their mental illnesses, behavioral disorders and emotional hardships, the need for qualified mental health professionals will continue to expand. Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, which raises an important question: How do social workers actively support the mental health of individuals and diverse communities?
Clinical social workers
Clinical social workers use their knowledge, skills and experience to help patients with mental illnesses assess, diagnose and treat their conditions. Unlike standard practices in psychology, clinical social work takes into account the environmental and societal factors that impact a client’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. This holistic approach seeks to resolve the underlying hardships that contribute to an individual’s overall mental health problems, rather than treating such issues in a vacuum. Clinical social workers address a wide range of mental health challenges, from substance abuse and addiction to childhood trauma and behavioral disorders. This massive scope allows them to work in a variety of practice settings and assist patients with very different needs.
School social worker
School social work is a specialized practice area that focuses on the development and mental health of students in the U.S. education system. These social workers are considered trained mental health professionals and provide hands-on assistance to children and young adults with mental illnesses, persistent behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Working alongside teachers, faculty and parents, school social workers offer positive behavioral and academic support to help students meet their full potential, according to the School Social Work Association of America. They also conduct individual and group counseling to understand students’ home environments and identify possible signs of abuse or neglect.
Substance abuse social worker
Substance abuse social workers specialize in diagnosing and treating cases of addiction and dependency. They work with patients to reduce drug and alcohol consumption, identify the root causes of addiction and create detailed treatment plans. Substance abuse social workers are often employed at hospitals, detoxification centers and other mental health clinics where recovering addicts may be staying, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as their knowledge and experience are crucial to providing effective and high-quality interventions. Professionals in these roles are well-versed in cognitive behavioral therapy, crisis intervention, motivational interviewing and trauma work, making them a core component of any drug rehabilitation program or facility.
Where are mental health social workers employed?
Mental health social workers are employed in a variety of clinical and non-clinical settings, from outpatient facilities to public schools. When searching for job openings, aspiring professionals should consider how their practice environment may impact the type of work they perform. For example, clinical social workers sometimes open their own private practices, allowing them to focus on mental health challenges that align with their interests and education. In contrast, school social workers are largely concentrated at public K-12 institutions and may not have the freedom to focus on specific mental illnesses or behavioral disorders. Here are a few examples of where mental health social workers are employed and how each setting is unique:
- Hospitals: Mental health social workers provide frontline services to patients in hospitals and medical facilities after an accident has occurred. However, the type of work they perform depends on their roles — clinical social workers might be responsible for conducting psychological assessments, while non-clinical staff could focus on determining which mental health services a patient is eligible for, according to the NASW. Other key tasks include crisis management, direct counseling or therapy, case management and treatment plan development.
- Mental health clinics: Clinical social workers employed in mental health settings, such as inpatient or outpatient facilities, provide essential case management and direct client services, including group therapy and crisis intervention. They work with patients struggling with substance abuse, eating disorders, mental illnesses and the stress of everyday life. Beyond treating mental health conditions, these social workers also educate clients about self-care and help them build the social, financial and interpersonal skills needed to lead comfortable and fulfilling lives.
- Private practices: After a long and successful career, some clinical social workers choose to open their own private practices. While this career path does come with strict licensing requirements, it offers practitioners a way to set their own schedules and choose the types of clients they want to support. Social work private practices typically offer individual and group therapy, substance abuse counseling and other mental health services provided by standard mental health professionals. They can also be contracted by companies to improve employee assistance programs and expand an organization’s mental health resources.
How to become a mental health social worker
Pursuing a mental health social worker career requires a vast array of educational and professional qualifications, especially for clinical roles. Most social workers start out by earning a bachelor’s degree in social work or another relevant field, such as psychology or public health. These types of undergraduate programs can provide a strong foundation in mental health concepts and the role of social services, which is essential to earning a practice license down the line. After graduating, some students choose to join the workforce to gain some real-world experience, while others enroll in an advanced program.
Earning a master’s in social work can help aspiring students and mid-career professionals expand their career opportunities, allowing them to take on clinical and specialized positions. MSW degrees prepare social workers to solve complex problems in diverse environments, treat mental illnesses and consider the underlying social and environmental influences that contribute to mental health challenges. Students are taught how medical research and data can be used to inform practice decisions, how to navigate ambiguous practice contexts and why social work places an emphasis on social and economic justice. Armed with these perspectives, mental health social workers can start seeking out clinical certifications that align with their career goals.
After graduating with an MSW, social workers must demonstrate their knowledge and work experience before they can earn a practice license. Although these requirements vary between states, almost all licensing boards require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s-level education. Once eligible, social workers can take the Association of Social Work Board exam, which qualifies them to be a licensed social worker. From here, professionals must perform supervised work for a set number of hours before they’re able to take the licensed clinical social worker exam, which is needed to fill most mental health social worker roles. These requirements vary by state, which is why it’s important to check with local licensing boards before applying for certification. Once they’ve earned the clinical license, social workers can apply to almost any position that calls for mental health knowledge and experience.
Kickstart your mental health social work career with an online MSW
The online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno, is designed to prepare students and established mental health professionals for hands-on social work roles. This MSW degree is one of only a handful of programs structured around advanced generalist practice, allowing you to follow your own interests and career goals while working toward graduation. Whether you’re looking to become a licensed clinical social worker or help young students improve their mental health and academic performance, UNR’s online program can provide the knowledge, skills and experience you need to make a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
Alongside real-world clinical and mental health practices, students also gain firsthand experience with the science behind the social work field. This approach ensures you can collaborate with professionals from diverse educational backgrounds and apply your knowledge in multidisciplinary environments. If you’re interested in social work private practice, the online MSW program can help you obtain the certifications needed to build a successful career in mental health and substance abuse counseling.