Clinical Mental Health Counseling Versus Social Work

While there is some overlap between clinical mental health counseling and social work, there are important differences in the services performed and the approaches taken to help clients. Below, you will learn how education, practices, and careers differ between the two fields.

Mental Health Counselor Education Requirements

To become a mental health counselor, you must earn a graduate degree in mental health counseling or an equivalent subject. For example, this could be a specific type of counseling, such as marriage and family therapy. A background in counseling, such as a bachelor’s degree in psychology, can be helpful in pursuing a graduate degree in counseling but is not always required.

You will want to consider pursuing your master’s or doctorate in counseling through a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP accreditation demonstrates that a program meets educational standards recognized in the counseling profession.

While a CACREP-accredited program will prepare you to become an effective counselor, it will also demonstrate your knowledge and training to employers, potentially increasing your job opportunities after graduation. Counseling@Northwestern offers:

  • a CACREP-accredited master’s in counseling from Northwestern University,
  • an optional emphasis in Child and Adolescent counseling and,
  • a Bridge to Counseling Program for students new to the field.

Master’s in mental health counseling programs typically can be completed in one to two years when studying full time. Counseling@Northwestern students can earn their master’s in counseling in as few as 18 months.

Social Work Education Requirements

To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), you must earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW). With a bachelor’s in social work, you may be able to work in the field, but usually only in entry-level or assistant positions, and you will be unable to provide direct clinical care to clients.

To earn licensure and provide clinical care, you should pursue a graduate program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation:

  • is the only accreditation organization for MSW programs in the United States,
  • ensures that a program provides the education and training needed to practice in the social work field and,
  • mandates that a master’s program includes at least 900 hours of clinical field experience.

As with a CACREP-accredited mental health counseling program, earning a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work may increase your job opportunities after graduation.

An MSW program will typically take two to three years to complete when pursued full time. Upon graduation, you’ll need to pass the board exams required in your state to become an LCSW. 

The Role of a Clinical Mental Health Counselor

As a mental health counselor, you will typically work with clients to help them understand their emotions and cope with a specific set of problems. Consequently, your education and training will explore in depth the forces that drive human behavior as well as cultural factors that influence that behavior.

Mental health counselor responsibilities include:

  • listening to and examining clients’ emotions and behavior,
  • giving clients the tools to make goals and work toward positive personal change and,
  • referring clients to other specialists, psychologists, and services.

As a mental health counselor, you may work in a specific area of mental health and treat clients in this area. You may help individuals who struggle with addiction or substance abuse, treat groups including couples and families, or assist children and adolescents facing mental health or behavioral issues as they develop. 

As a mental health counselor, you may work in a range of settings including:

  • community health centers
  • inpatient and outpatient clinics
  • veterans’ hospitals
  • substance abuse clinics
  • university student services or career centers
  • research institutions
  • private practice

Because the counselor-client relationship is central to the therapeutic process, you must be aware of how your personal experiences and biases influence your behavior and worldview. While the educational focus for mental health counselors emphasizes clinical practice, you will also learn to implement outreach and advocacy interventions into your work with clients.

Learn more about what mental health counselors do.

The Role of a Social Worker

Social workers may engage in counseling as one of the many services they perform for clients. However, social workers often help clients address a range of issues potentially including, but not limited to, mental health. Social workers may work with various institutions and other health professionals to improve the wellness of their clients.

As a social worker, you may serve individuals, families, and other groups of people in settings including social service agencies, private practice, or hospitals.

In addition to managing client cases, social workers’ responsibilities can include:

  • addressing legal issues affecting clients,
  • connecting clients to community services,
  • conducting research in the social work field and,
  • developing policy and advocating for societal systemic change.

Because of this broader range of duties, many social work degree programs will not explore psychotherapy in the same depth as counseling programs typically do.

Mental Health Counselor Careers

The job outlook for mental health counselors is promising as awareness of mental health issues increases and gains greater importance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. The median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in 2018 was $44,630.[1]

Learn more about careers in mental health counseling.

Social Work Careers

The job outlook for social workers is also promising, with employment expected to rise 16 percent from 2016 to 2026 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual salary for a social worker in 2018 was $49,470.[2] 

Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor

The differences between mental health counselors and social workers are extensive, including education requirements, career settings, industry growth, and clientele. But the primary difference lies in the kind of treatment each professional delivers to their clients.

As a social worker, you’ll help clients succeed in various areas of their life through a number of means. As a mental health counselor, you’ll deliver focused mental health treatment to your clients as a specialist in this field.  

If you’re ready to become a mental health counselor, learn more about how you can further your education and prepare for a successful career in the field with Counseling@Northwestern. Request information about the Master of Arts in Counseling today.

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[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, (accessed June 16, 2019) 

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers, (accessed June 16, 2019)