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Mental Health Social Worker: Career and Salary Overview


Mental illness spans all demographics. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in five Americans lives with a mental disorder varying in severity from mild to severe. As a result, the need for mental health professionals is in high demand.

Mental health social workers help people recover from an array of mental, behavioral, and emotional challenges. Working directly with clients -- or in collaboration with psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists -- they assess, diagnose, counsel, and provide support and resources. They offer individual therapy, family and group counseling, crisis intervention, and advocacy services. Although some social workers enter the field with only a bachelor's degree, most mental health social workers need a master's in social work (MSW) to obtain a license to practice.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mental health social workers earn a median annual salary of $46,650. This amount includes wages for social workers with only a bachelor's degree. Graduate training, licensure, type of employer, and work experience will increase overall levels of compensation.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a mental health social worker make an hour?

Most people become social workers to help others rather than to get rich. Mental health social worker jobs -- while not the most highly paying -- offer a mean hourly wage of $23.86. The lowest paid mental health social workers earn an hourly wage of $13.61, and the highest 90% make almost triple that amount at $37.94.

Where do mental health social workers work?

Mental health social workers find employment in private practice, state and private hospitals, mental health clinics, community health centers, rehabilitation treatment facilities, and educational organizations. According to the BLS, outpatient care centers, individual and family services, and local government agencies report the highest level of employment for these specialized social workers.

How long does it take to become a mental health social worker?

The educational path to a mental health social work career begins with a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field. This typically takes four years of study. Most students spend an additional 1-2 years to earn their MSW. Licensed clinical social workers must also complete up to two years of postgraduate practicum experience.

Is a mental health social worker a mandated reporter?

Mandated reporters refer to law enforcement officials, social workers, mental health professionals, educators and others required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, and, in some states, elder abuse. institutional corruption, and other types of harmful behaviors. Social workers serve as mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect in all fifty states.

Top Paying Industries for Mental Health Social Workers

While mental health social work ranks among the highest paid social work specializations, some employment settings pay substantially more than others. Insurance carriers, as the top paying sector for mental health social workers, report an annual mean salary of $68,650. Specialty hospitals, excluding non-psychiatric/substance abuse facilities, come in second at $64,230, followed by $64,080 for other ambulatory healthcare services. Colleges, universities, and professional schools also offer relatively high salaries, paying a mean annual wage of $63,890.

Top Paying States for Mental Health Social Workers

Mental health social workers do not typically choose this career for the money, but they canexpect to earn a reasonable salary after completing degree and licensure requirements. The BLS reports earnings for mental health and substance abuse social workers for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The states with the highest levels of compensation include New Jersey, California, Connecticut, New York, and the District of Columbia. New Jersey offers the highest average mean salary of $83,050, while earnings in the other four states range from $63,000-$66,000.

These professionals find the highest employment levels in states located on both coasts. California ranks at the top, followed by New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. California pays the highest mean annual salary of $65,020. In comparison, social workers in Pennsylvania benefit from considerable employment opportunities but earn a lower average yearly salary of $36,710.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Mental Health Social Workers

Urban areas across the U.S. support a large number of healthcare providers that employ social workers, including mental health specialists. The growing demand for these professionals and the high cost of living associated with most metropolitan locations have driven up salary and employment levels.

New Jersey ranks as the highest paying metropolitan area in the U.S., paying mental health social workers an annual mean salary of $84,990. Seven urban centers in California also rank among the top-paying metropolitan areas, offering annual average salaries ranging from $71,000-$81,000.

The east coast region that includes New York, Newark, and Jersey City reports the highest levels of employment, paying mental health social workers an average annual wage of $67,160. On the west coast, these professionals find the most employment opportunities in the metropolitan area of Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, earning a yearly salary of $61,570.

Salary and Job Growth for Mental Health Social Workers

The overall employment outlook for social work and mental health professionals continues to rise. The increased demand for all social work specializations propels a projected job growth of 11% from 2019-29, much higher than the national average for all occupations.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers can anticipate an even higher growth rate of 18%, resulting in over 22,000 new job openings during this same period, as more people seek treatment for mental disorders and addictions. The emerging trend that places drug offenders in rehabilitative treatment programs rather than in jail will also create employment opportunities for mental health social workers in these settings.

While the BLS statistics on job openings include positions for those with a bachelor's degree, the better paying opportunities require an MSW and licensure.

How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

The majority of social work positions require a master of science in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and state licensure. However, a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field provides the minimum educational requirement for many entry-level positions while also preparing students for graduate study.

Bachelor degree-holders typically finish their MSW in two years but licensure may require up to two additional years of clinical experience. MSW students specializing in mental health often pursue the nationally recognized Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) credential.

Mental/behavioral health accounts for 35.9% of all MSW specializations, followed by 25.5% in children, youth and family social work, and 14.3% in general practice. According to a recent CSWE Workforce Survey, more than a quarter of MSW graduates provide services to clients dealing with mental health issues. Because licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and mental health social workers perform similar roles, many students choose to enter LCSW programs. Over 80% of MSW graduates plan to or already have obtained LCSW certification.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Social work licensure ensures that social work professionals possess the appropriate education and skills to provide ethical and competent client services. Clinical social workers must hold a valid license to practice in all fifty states.

While each state regulatory board establishes its own licensure criteria, mental health social workers generally must complete a CSWE-accredited MSW and approximately two years of post-degree supervised clinical experience. They must then achieve a passing score on the national exam coordinated by the Association of Social Work Boards

Mental health social workers seeking enhanced professional recognition may obtain the C-SWHC certification administered by the National Association of Social Workers. Applicants for this specialist credential must complete an MSW and 3,000 postgraduate clinical hours and pass their state licensure exam.