Counseling vs. Social Work

Social Work vs. Counseling

Counselors and social workers provide valuable services to people who are facing challenges, especially with mental health and coping. Understanding what social workers and counselors do can help someone decide which career path is best for them. While they may seem very similar, there are distinct differences. 

Counseling vs. Social Work: The Differences

Social work professionals help people access services such as food and housing assistance; provide counseling and psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups; elevate social and health services by organizing wellness events; and participate in legislative processes. While clinical social workers (CSWs) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can provide therapy, they also refer clients to other resources or services, such as those offered by counselors.

A counselor’s work is generally more targeted. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), counselors “are mental health service providers, trained to work with individuals, families, and groups in treating mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders.” Professionals in counseling may provide services to specific populations, such as the elderly, college students, couples, or children. Counselors are trained to help clients cope with a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, stress, and suicidal impulses. 

Counseling vs. Social Work: The Similarities

Professionals in the fields of social work and counseling share some similarities, such as the goal of helping and supporting people from various walks of life, including those in marginalized communities. Whether they are connecting clients to services or treating them for mental health disorders, they assess and evaluate situations and individual conditions to improve people’s lives.

Counselors and social workers may be found in the same workplace settings, including mental health clinics, community health centers, hospitals, schools, and private practice. 

Counselors and social workers have similar qualities including mastery of these areas: communication, compassion, diagnosing mental health disorders, interpersonal relationships, and analytical, or problem-solving, skills. They also earn master’s degrees to be clinical practitioners.

Counseling vs. Social Work: Education Requirements

While entry-level positions in counseling or social work environments usually require at least a bachelor’s degree, professional careers in counseling or social work require earning graduate degrees. 

Clinical social workers typically must earn a master’s in social work (MSW), have two years of experience in a clinical setting after earning their degree, and be licensed by their state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A bachelor’s degree in social work is not always a prerequisite for an MSW program, but undergraduate courses are recommended in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science. MSW students learn to develop clinical assessment and management skills that prepare them to work in their chosen specialty, which also requires a supervised practicum or an internship. LCSW credentials require candidates to pass a licensure exam after earning a master’s degree in social work and completing a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience. 

The Council on Social Work Education accredits social work programs.

Professional counselors have master’s or doctoral degrees in addiction counseling, career counseling, clinical mental health or community agency counseling, marriage, couple and family counseling, school counseling, student affairs and college counseling, gerontological counseling, or counselor education and supervision. Undergraduate degrees are required for a master’s in counseling program, however, a degree in a specific field isn’t mandatory. All states require mental health counselors to be licensed. Licensure requirements will vary by state. Mental health counselors typically have a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, according to the BLS. 

The independent Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to accredit master’s degree programs in counseling. 

Counseling vs. Social Work: Career and Salaries

The job outlooks for counselors and social workers are promising as growth in both professions is expected to continue. 

Projected growth of social worker careers is 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average of 8 percent for all occupations, according to the BLS. While rates of growth in specialties will vary, employment of mental health and addiction social workers is projected to increase 15 percent from 2020 to 2030, also much faster than the average for all occupations. As more people seek treatment for mental illness and addiction, job growth for these social workers will continue. 

The median annual social worker salary was $50,390 in May 2021.

Counseling careers are expected to grow even more than social work occupations as people continue to seek help from addiction and mental health counselors, according to the BLS. Jobs are expected to grow 23 percent from 2020 to 2030 for those in the fields of addiction, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling. The BLS also estimates employment of marriage and family therapists will grow 16 percent

In May 2021, the median annual salary was $60,510 for school and career counselors and advisors; $48,520 for addiction, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors; and $49,880 for marriage and family therapists.

People may choose counseling or social work careers for the opportunity to help others solve problems and cope with daily life. Social workers are more involved in the systems that a person must navigate to get the support they need. Counselors focus on the mental health care of people, families, and communities. Both professions may provide the reward of knowing that you helped improve someone else’s condition. 

Last updated June 2022.