The Differences between Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Social Work

While there is some overlap between clinical mental health counseling and social work, each of these two professions differs from the other 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.

  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor

    To become a licensed mental health counselor, you must earn a graduate degree in mental health counseling or an equivalent subject. 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 help prepare you to become an effective counselor, it will also help you demonstrate your knowledge and training to employers, potentially increasing your job opportunities after graduation. One such program is Counseling@Northwestern, which offers:

    • a CACREP-accredited master’s in counseling from The Family Institute at Northwestern University,
    • 800 hours of clinical training,
    • 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 can typically be completed in one to two years of full-time studies. With Counseling@Northwestern, students can earn their master’s in counseling in as few as 18 months. Note that upon graduating with a master’s in counseling, you will still have to meet your state’s licensing requirements, such as pass a national licensure exam(s) and receive post-degree supervised experience, to become licensed.

    Social Worker

    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; plus, without a license, you will be unable to provide direct clinical care to clients.

    To earn licensure and provide clinical care, you need to 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 a licensed social worker LCSW.

  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor

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

    Clinical mental health counselor responsibilities include:

    • diagnosing and treating mental health disorders,
    • listening to and examining clients’ emotions and behavior, and
    • helping clients set goals and work toward positive, personal change.

    As a clinical 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 substances, treat groups including couples and families, or assist children and adolescents facing mental health or behavioral issues as they develop. 

    As a clinical 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.

    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. 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, a social worker’s 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 do not explore psychotherapy in the same depth as counseling programs typically do.

  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor

    The job outlook for clinical mental health counselors is promising, because awareness of mental health issues has increased and keeps increasing, and has already gained greater importance within our society. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for substance, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will grow by 18 percent between 2022 and 2032. The annual salary for counselors in 2022 ranged from $49,710 to $75,340.1

    Learn more about careers in mental health counseling.

    Social Worker

    The employment of social workers is expected to rise 7 percent from 2022 to 2032 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual salary for a social worker in 2022 was $55,350.2

Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor

The differences between mental health counselors and social workers are extensive, and include education requirements, industry growth, and clientele. The primary difference, however, is the kind of treatment each professional delivers to their clients.

So why should you choose Counseling@Northwestern? Our students can answer this question best. Hear more about how Counseling@Northwestern helped students succeed in their careers as clinical mental health counselors

If you’re ready to learn more about the online program, request information today.

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1Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. (2023). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 30, 2024. arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference

2Social Workers (2023). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 30, 2024. arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference