Steps to Become a Mental Health Social Worker
Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023
Mental health social workers first started working with psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses to address the psychosocial needs of patients to improve their chances of getting well back in the 1910s.
More than 100 years later, these professionals still work with patients, families, and the interdisciplinary care team to assess patients’ psychosocial needs, connect with resources, and provide therapy for their mental health and substance misuse conditions. Learn more about what mental health social workers do and how you can join this established field of social work.
Steps to Become a Mental Health Social Worker
The steps to become a mental health social worker are almost the same steps for licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) because mental health social work requires clinical social work. However, mental health social workers can show their expertise and experience with certifications from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field: First, you must earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field, such as sociology, political science, and psychology. A BSW teaches you about human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy, and research methods. Graduates can complete the MSW in fewer credits.
- Earn a master of social work (MSW) degree: You can earn a master’s in social work (MSW) in 30-60 credits. If you earned a BSW, you may enter the program with advanced standing and complete your MSW with as little as 30 credits. Your MSW deepens your understanding of social welfare policy, human behavior and social education, and clinical practice through field placement.
- Complete supervised experience in clinical social work: Mental health social work requires you to become an LCSW or your state’s equivalent. To do this, you need to complete about two years or 3,000 hours of supervised experience in clinical social work. During your supervised experience, you learn how to diagnose, assess, and treat individuals and groups using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
- Become licensed in your state: Most roles in mental health social work require you to practice clinical social work and become an LCSW. However, state requirements to get your clinical social work license vary. Most states require you to earn an MSW, complete 3,000 hours or two years of supervised experience, take a jurisprudence exam, and pass your ASWB clinical exam to become licensed.
- Gain experience: Find a position in mental health social work and begin your career counseling individuals and groups with mental health and substance misuse conditions. You can find mental health social work positions in healthcare and government settings, such as outpatient care centers, local government, and psychiatric hospitals.
- Consider additional certifications: NASW offers certification in clinical social work, such as Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) and Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW). These certifications show clients and employers that your experience and expertise in clinical social work meets national standards.
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What Is a Mental Health Social Worker?
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from June 2023, about 60% of mental health social workers work in healthcare settings, such as outpatient care centers; hospitals; and residential, mental health, and substance misuse facilities. Mental health social workers assess, diagnose, and treat their clients’ mental health and substance abuse conditions, according to the DSM-5.
Mental health social workers collaborate with other members of the interdisciplinary team to create and implement treatment and discharge plans. They help coordinate care, refer clients to services, such as 12-step programs and support groups. You need an LCSW, or your state’s equivalent, so you practice psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups.
What Do Mental Health Social Workers Do?
The responsibilities for mental health social workers vary slightly based on where you work, but most mental health workers:
- Examine and diagnose people with mental health and substance misuse conditions
- Create and implement treatment and discharge plans for people with mental health and substance misuse conditions by working with an interdisciplinary team
- Connect clients to community resources, such as housing assistance and financial and employment support
- Advocate for and coordinate client services in the community
- Provide crisis management and assess safety
- Identify and intervene in cases of domestic and child abuse
Where Do Mental Health Social Workers Work?
Mental health social workers usually work in a healthcare setting, including outpatient care or individual and family services.
- Outpatient Care Centers: Social workers coordinate community resources for clients, refer clients to those resources, identify and intervene in abuse cases, and coordinate care with the rest of their healthcare team.
- Individual and Family Services: Social workers identify at-risk families, determine whether they’re eligible for services, take psychosocial assessments, and create and implement treatment, intervention, and discharge plans.
- Residential, Mental Health, and Substance Misuse Facilities: Social workers create treatment and discharge plans; provide psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups; manage crises; and promote the mental health services their clinics provide within the community.
Certification and License Requirements for Mental Health Social Workers
You need an LCSW or your state’s equivalent to start your career in mental health social work. Requirements for clinical social work licenses vary by state. However, in most states, to become an LCSW, you need to:
- Earn an MSW.
- Complete 3,000 hours or two years of supervised experience in clinical social work.
- Take a jurisprudence exam.
- Pass your ASWB clinical exam.
- Complete a license application and pay the application fee.
After you get your license and find a job, you can show your experience and expertise in clinical social work with any of the several certification options that NASW offers, depending on your area of expertise. THE NASW offers certifications for you to show your experience with service members, veterans, and their families; older adults; substance misuse; and clinical social work. To get any of these clinical social work certifications from NASW, you need:
- An MSW
- A current, unrestricted clinical social work license to practice
- 2-3 years, or 3,000-4,500 hours, of supervised, paid, post-MSW clinical experience in your area of expertise
- 180-300 contact hours of continuing education on your area of experience
How Much Do Mental Health Social Workers Make?
Mental health social workers make an average of $60,130 per year, or $28.91 per hour, according to BLS data from April 2023. This salary is about $700 more than the annual average salary of all social workers, as mental health social workers are usually LCSWs and practice clinical social work.
Mental health social workers may earn more pay depending on their work settings and experience. Mental healthcare social workers in healthcare offices make an average annual salary $15,000 higher than the average for all mental health social workers. Clinical social workers, who have more than twenty years of experience, earn about 35% more than those with less than a year of experience, according to Payscale data from June 2023.
Frequently Asked Questions about Mental Health Social Workers
How long does it take to become a mental health social worker?
You need 8-9 years to become a mental health social worker. This includes four years earning your undergraduate degree, 2-3 years completing your master’s in social work (MSW), and about two years completing the supervised experience required for licensure.
What is the difference between a social worker and a psychiatrist?
Clinical social workers and psychiatrists differ in their training and scope of practice. Like psychiatrists, clinical social workers assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions using psychotherapy and the DSM-5. They complete six years of education after high school and two years of supervised experience. Psychiatrists can use medication and other medical interventions because they are medical doctors (M.D. or D.O). They complete eight years of education after high school and a four-year residency.
What is the difference between a social worker and a mental health social worker?
Individual and family services and roles at every level of government employ most social workers. Generalist social work includes maintaining case files, responding to crises, and connecting clients with resources. Most mental health social workers work in healthcare settings and do all of the generalist social work duties, as well as examining, diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.
What is the difference between a master’s in psychology and social work?
A master’s in social work builds your knowledge of human behavior, the social environment, clinical practice, and research methods more comprehensively than a master’s in psychology. A master’s in psychology allows you to focus on one area of psychology, such as pharmapsychology.