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How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

January 4, 2023

Mental health social workers help people overcome mental, emotional and behavioral health issues — and statistics show that the need for the assistance they provide is at its highest level in decades.

In 2020, only about a third of Americans (34 percent) reported that their mental health was excellent, polls from analytics firm Gallup indicate. That percentage was 9 points lower than the previous year, and 8 points lower than at any time since the annual poll began in 2001. In 2021, the number remained the same, with only 34 percent of Americans reporting their mental health was excellent, a result Gallup attributes to the nation’s ongoing struggles related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that mental health social workers will have the highest projected job growth of any social work profession this decade.

For those interested in learning more about how to become a mental health social worker, it’s important to note that these professionals often are licensed clinical social workers, a designation that requires first earning a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree.

What Is a Mental Health Social Worker?

Mental health social workers, sometimes called psychiatric social workers, assess individuals’ conditions and develop therapeutic strategies to help them manage their mental health. Often working in collaboration with physicians, nurses and counselors, they assist patients and groups based on their specific needs and concerns.

Mental health social workers address issues related to clients’ mental, emotional and behavioral health needs. These issues can manifest in a variety of ways, including as anxiety, eating disorders, depression and substance misuse.

What Do Mental Health Social Workers Do?

The responsibilities of a mental health social worker can encompass therapy, crisis intervention, case management and client advocacy. Their day-to-day duties generally include:

  • Assessing clients’ needs to inform a recovery plan
  • Assisting clients in developing and attaining goals
  • Conducting behavioral risk assessments
  • Connecting clients with resources that address their concerns — including, in the case of those with more serious issues, other mental health professionals
  • Monitoring clients’ progress in treatment
  • Offering guidance to clients’ family members about how to support their loved ones
  • Presenting strategies to clients for coping with their mental health issues
  • Providing individual or group therapy

Where Do Mental Health Social Workers Work?

Mental health social workers provide services in a variety of settings, including:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Community health organizations
  • Mental health clinics
  • Outpatient care facilities
  • Primary health care centers
  • Private practices
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Rehabilitation treatment centers and nonprofit organizations serving specific at-risk populations

Additionally, mental health social workers may visit clients in their homes or conduct visits virtually using remote technology.

How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Many mental health social workers are licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), which means they’re qualified to diagnose clients and provide therapy and other forms of treatment. Earning a license as a clinical social worker requires an M.S.W. degree and calls for gaining supervised, on-the-job experience as well.

1. Earn Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees

The first step in becoming a mental health social worker involves earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. The typical bachelor’s degree is in social work or a related field. Becoming an LCSW requires a master’s degree in social work.

Bachelor’s Degree

Social work, psychology and sociology are common bachelor’s degrees for prospective mental health social workers. A bachelor’s degree often is the minimum education requirement for entry-level positions like support and case management roles. Bachelor’s degree programs that serve as good foundations for a career in mental health social work generally include courses in subjects such as:

  • Counseling
  • Mental illness
  • Psychology
  • Social and behavioral analysis

Master’s Degree

To diagnose and treat mental health issues, social workers need to attain licensing and certification — and an M.S.W. is a prerequisite for earning these designations. M.S.W. programs that can prepare professionals for roles in mental health social work combine classwork with hands-on experience.

These programs focus on social work practice in a variety of settings with clients who have mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. They provide clinical, leadership and cultural competence training.

2. Gain Work Experience

Work experience, often through internships, is a crucial step in becoming a mental health social worker, even when seeking entry-level roles. All M.S.W. programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education require field education as part of the curriculum. These experiences provide valuable on-the-job experience in preparation for social work roles.

Licensing requirements vary by state, but in many cases, two years of full-time clinical work experience under a licensed clinical social worker’s direct supervision is required for licensure.

Important Skills for Mental Health Social Workers

Gaining experience in the field also can help aspiring mental health social workers develop crucial skills, such as:

  • Communication — To help build relationships that foster open and honest discussion
  • Problem-solving — To help identify clients’ challenges and develop plans for overcoming them
  • Empathy — To help identify with patients’ problems and concerns
  • Patience — To help in handling complex cases that require long-term treatment
  • Organization — To help manage multiple client cases efficiently

3. Obtain a State License

Some states require nonclinical social workers to have a license, and all states require clinical social workers to obtain one. Licensing requirements vary by state, but they typically entail:

  • Earning an M.S.W. degree
  • Gaining supervised professional experience
  • Passing a clinical exam

4. Pursue Certification

Mental health social workers often hold the certified social worker in health care (C-SWHC) credential through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The certification indicates expertise in areas such as:

  • Enhancing or maintaining patients’ overall health, including their mental health
  • Evaluating the biological, psychological and social aspects of patients’ mental well-being
  • Developing standards of practice to provide effective services to patients

Certification Requirements

C-SWHC certification requires candidates to:

  • Hold an M.S.W. degree
  • Pass their state licensing exam
  • Complete two years of supervised postgraduate experience working with patients facing challenges related to physical or mental health conditions

Mental Health Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Salaries for mental health social workers vary according to education, experience and location. In May 2021, according to the BLS, mental health social workers earned a median annual wage of $49,130, with the top 10 percent of salaries exceeding $97,300.

While the employment outlook for all social work professions is bright, roles in mental health social work are projected to have the greatest growth this decade. The BLS projects 15 percent growth in mental health and substance misuse social worker roles between 2020 and 2030, compared with 12 percent for all social workers and 8 percent for all occupations.

The BLS cites the increasing demand for mental health services as a primary reason for this job growth. As Gallup’s polls of Americans’ mental health in 2020 and 2021 indicate, the nation is grappling with more mental challenges than at any point in recent history. A report from Mental Health America (MHA) shows 47.1 million people were living with mental health conditions in 2021 — 1.5 million more than MHA’s 2020 report revealed.

Prepare for a Rewarding, In-Demand Social Work Role

Becoming a mental health social worker provides the opportunity to help people overcome a broad range of mental, emotional and behavioral issues — making a difference in their lives and meeting a growing national need. If you’re ready to earn an advanced degree in the field, explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work Program online format.

Through the program, you can gain the skills and expertise you’ll need to help improve the well-being of those in your community. You’ll learn from faculty at one of the nation’s top social work schools through an online program that offers opportunities for field education close to home. Discover how the M.S.W. Program can help you achieve your social work career goals.