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Everything You Need to Know About Mental Health Social Workers

If you’re considering a new career as a mental health social worker or are in the field and ready to earn an advanced degree and get licensed to practice in your state, this blog is for you. 

There is an increasing demand in the U.S. to help improve the mental health of those needing quality, compassionate treatment. Being a mental health social worker can be meaningful and life-changing for you and those in your care.

The Ripple Effect of Mental Illness

It’s widely accepted that good mental health promotes good physical health. In contrast, poor mental health can negatively affect you physically. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) calls this the ripple effect. People with serious mental illness are twice as likely to have cardiometabolic disease and an increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes. 

Apart from pregnancy and birth-related inpatient stays NAMI reports depressive disorders are the number one cause of hospitalization in adults 18 and older. These statistics and countless others underscore the need for qualified mental and behavioral health professionals.

What Is a Mental Health Social Worker?

Mental health social workers counsel families, individuals and/or groups on how to cope with problems that interfere with their daily activities and overall well-being. A mental health social worker, sometimes called a psychiatric social worker, specifically focuses on mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. 

These specially trained professionals are licensed to counsel and treat people experiencing a mental illness, behavioral issue or substance abuse disorder. They may collaborate with psychologists, psychiatrists, and others on the mental health team or refer clients to community services and other resources to aid in their recovery.

No matter who they treat and in what area, every state requires mental health social workers to hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and pass the state exam if they are going to counsel and provide therapy.

social worker chatting with mom and teen

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Mental health social workers assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses, behavioral disorders and emotional issues such as:

  • Addiction, substance abuse and alcoholism
  • Child abuse, neglect and behavioral problems
  • Coping with unemployment, homelessness and long-term disabilities
  • Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Significant life events, including divorce, bereavement and terminal illnesses

No two days are the same for a mental health social worker because people of all ages and backgrounds may need mental health services at any time. Variables such as the client, the environment and the mental health condition provide a diverse experience.

In addition to advocating for their clients and administrative and supervisory duties, mental health social workers generally function in the following areas:


The most fundamental role of a mental health social worker is to build rapport and relationships so they can identify individuals, groups or communities who need mental health support and have not yet connected with the appropriate resources. 


Assessing and Collaborating

Another primary function of the mental health social worker is to evaluate each client’s specific needs and conduct a risk assessment. Some clients may need therapeutic tools to cope with daily challenges, whereas others may need to be connected with psychologists or psychiatrists. When more intervention is necessary, clients may benefit from inpatient or outpatient care to treat more complex issues. The mental health social worker is the hub in the wheel of care. They determine the nature and severity of the mental illness and collaborate with professionals in related fields to ensure their clients get the type of treatment they need. Mental health social workers also collaborate with their client’s family members and friends to assist them in improving their mental health.


Treating and Researching

Licensed mental health social workers conduct counseling and therapy to their clients in individual or group settings. They may also provide crisis intervention in mental health emergencies. Additionally, part of their job is to research outside resources best suited to meet their client’s needs and ensure they have access to them, such as community clinics, transportation services, job placement services, and others. 


Monitoring and Modifying

Monitoring clients’ treatment plans is an integral part of comprehensive care. The mental health social worker stays abreast of their client’s progress and aids in the modification of treatment plans, as necessary.

Types of Mental Health Social Workers 

An MSW is considered the professional practice standard for mental health social workers and is required if you want to become a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) specializing in mental health. 

In both the public and private sectors, the nation’s 250,000 clinical social workers serve millions of American clients and provide more behavioral healthcare in more settings than any other profession. 

Mental health social workers can choose to practice as advanced generalists, or they may focus on clinical practice.

Advanced Generalists

As an advanced generalist, you will work directly with clients needing clinical social services and become skilled at analyzing and addressing the more significant social, political and environmental causes of injustice. With an advanced generalist specialization, you will have the skills to lead social service organizations to meet the needs of your community. 

This specialization is ideal if you want to become prepared in both micro- and macro-level social work in mental health and substance abuse.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers in mental health consider the environments and societal factors that impact their clients’ mental well-being. They provide direct clinical treatment and collaborate with allied health professionals. They assess and diagnose, plan treatment, provide therapy and counseling, and engage in case management, crisis intervention and referrals.

social worker talking with mother and daughter

Where Do Mental Health Social Workers Work?

Mental health social workers practice in various clinical and non-clinical environments, and each setting is unique. Though certainly not a comprehensive list, these are typical environments in which mental health social workers may practice:

  • Clinics
  • Elder care facilities 
  • Governmental agencies 
  • Hospitals 
  • Military bases 
  • Prisons 
  • Private practices 
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools 


As the name implies, clinical mental health social workers practice within inpatient or outpatient facilities and provide essential therapy, crisis intervention and case management. Beyond treatment, these social workers may educate their clients about self-care, guide them toward community resources, and help them build communication skills to enhance their daily functioning.



Mental health social workers are the frontline response to patients in need of mental health services in hospitals and other types of medical facilities. Clinical social workers may perform assessments and diagnoses, while non-clinical social workers might focus on finding the appropriate services for the patient. These mental health social workers also provide counseling or therapy, crisis intervention and case management.


Private Practices

Licensed mental health social workers may open their own practice so they can set their schedules and choose the types of clients and disorders they want to treat. Like any other mental health social worker, private practitioners generally offer individual and group therapy and other standard mental health and substance abuse services. In some cases, social workers in private practice may be called upon by companies to aid in employee assistance programs.



Mental health social workers who practice in schools focus on the development and mental health of K-12 students. They work directly with children demonstrating mental illness, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. They collaborate with teachers, faculty and parents to provide support to help children reach their full potential. School social workers are also trained to identify possible signs of abuse or neglect

Earning Potential and Job Security


Becoming a mental health social worker provides a rewarding and fulfilling career with a healthy salary. ZipRecruiter reports that the national average mental health social worker salary is $72,724, or $35 per hour. The top earners make $104,500 annually across the U.S.

Employment Outlook

Of the 728,600 social workers employed in the United States in 2022, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 113,500 were mental health and substance abuse social workers. 

The employment outlook for mental health social worker jobs is very positive. The BLS projects the overall employment of mental health social workers to grow 11% through 2032, faster than the average for all other occupations.

How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Once you decide to become a mental health social worker, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and state licensure. If you want to provide direct counseling and therapy to clients, you’ll need an MSW.

Step One: Bachelor’s Degree

The first step is to get your BSW. This path typically takes four years, although some schools provide accelerated programs.

Step Two: Master’s Degree

Only mental health social workers with a master’s degree can provide counseling services and therapy to clients, so it’s a smart move to earn your MSW. Ensure you enroll in a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

Most graduate degree programs take an average of two years to complete, and some schools, like Cleveland State University (CSU), offer an MSW online. In addition to coursework, all MSW programs require fieldwork hours for hands-on practice.  

If you have a bachelor’s degree in a non-social work field, you can earn your MSW through Cleveland State University’s (CSU) Online MSW – Traditional Track program. If you have a BSW degree, you can earn your MSW through CSU’s Online MSW – Advanced Standing program.

Step Three: Licensure

Using Ohio’s Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) as an example of licensing standards for clinical and advanced generalist social workers, applicants need an MSW and two years and 3,000 hours of post-graduate supervised social work experience and training. Applicants must pass formal examinations like the Association of Social Work Boards.

Step Four (Optional): Credentialing

Although not mandatory, getting credentialed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the most recognized association in the country, speaks to your commitment to the profession. Credential social workers are known for having “in-depth knowledge, proven work experience, leadership capacity, competence, and dedication to the social work profession,” according to NASW. Being licensed and credentialed improves your opportunities for leadership roles within the profession.

Mental health social workers may pursue the certified worker in health care (C-SWHC) credential through NASW to demonstrate expertise in the field.

Get Started on the Path to Your MSW

Cleveland State University offers two CSWE-accredited, online pathways to achieving a master’s in social work with specializations as a clinical social worker or an advanced generalist.  

The Traditional Track of CSU’s online MSW is designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in another field who want to start a new career as a mental health social worker. 

The online MSW Advanced Standing program offers the shortest pathway in Ohio to an MSW for students who already have a BSW.

Additional Certificates

Depending on your specialization, you can earn additional certificates in Chemical Dependency, Gerontology or School Social Work. These value-added certificates can benefit your clients depending on which population you serve as a mental health social worker.


Both programs are offered part-time or full-time, and no campus visits are required. Fieldwork hours completed in your community provide the hands-on experience you need to become a skilled and confident mental health social worker.