The Mental Health Social Worker In The U.S.

A mental health social worker is a professional who treats people with substance abuse issues or mental illnesses. There are essentially two kinds of social workers; the clinical social worker, also known as a licensed clinical social worker, who diagnoses and treats mental, emotional, and behavioral issues and direct-service social workers who assist people to solve and cope with problems in their normal everyday lives. The mental health social worker falls under the former category.

The treatment that a mental health social worker dispenses ranges between the teaching of necessary skills for day-to-day living, crisis intervention, personal or group therapy, or various other interventions. Mental health social workers work in either out-patient or in-patient settings. Some mental health social workers are employed in private practices, where they see the patient privately and decide on the type of therapy according to the issues that are presented in consultation.

Duties Of A Mental Health Social Worker

A mental health social worker basically provides services that assist individuals to deal with crises or issues of a personal nature via therapy, counselling, or other practical assistance. Exactly what they do and how they operate depends on the setting in which they work. In an outpatient setting they usually take on multiple roles, and in substance abuse clinics, their duties could include intermittent drug testing and counseling. Some mental health workers are employed by companies as part of an employee assistance program, where part of their duties would be to assist individuals with personal or work-related stresses that are affecting their ability to work effectively.

Some duties of a mental health social worker are:

  • Interviewing clients, conducting assessments, reviewing records, or consulting with other professionals in order to evaluate the mental or physical condition of patients or clients
  • Educating clients or community members regarding mental or physical illness, medication, abuse, or the availability of community resources
  • Assisting clients in adhering to treatment plans by performing such tasks as setting up appointments for them, arranging for their transportation to those appointments, or providing support
  • Counseling or aiding the client or patient’s family as to how to assist them in dealing with, understanding, and supporting them
  • Collaborating with physicians, nurses or counselors to plan or coordinate a treatment-plan, drawing on their own social work experience and the needs of the patient
  • Monitoring, evaluating and recording a client’s progress with regards to treatment goals
  • Referring clients, patients, or families to community resources for housing assistance or treatment to assist in their recovery from a physical or mental illness
  • Developing or advising on social policy or assisting in community development
  • The planning or conducting of programs to combat social problems, prevent substance abuse, or improve counseling or health services in community
  • Counseling clients or patients individually or in group sessions to assist them in dealing with mental or physical illness, substance abuse, physical abuse poverty, or unemploymentMental Health Social Worker

Depending on the setting there may also be other duties that the mental health social worker will perform, such as supervising or directing other individuals who provide a range of services to their patients or clients, or modifying treatment plans according to client needs. Many private clinical social workers also often do recordkeeping and various other administrative tasks such as marketing their practice or assisting clients to get payment from their insurance carriers.

It is also the responsibility of every mental health social worker to continually improve their knowledge in the field by conducting social research, attending training workshops and seminars and reviewing current literature.

Skills Required By A Mental Health Social Worker

Mental health social work does not suit everyone, even if they have done other social work before. This is a very stressful career and some very specific skills are required to cope with the stresses of the job.

In order to become a mental health social worker, one needs the following skills:

  • Active Listening – this means the ability to give full attention to what other individuals are saying, taking time to understand the points that they are making, asking questions when appropriate and if required, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Active Learning – one must be able to understand the implications of new information and its impact on both current and future problem-solving and decision-making
  • Critical Thinking – the ability to use reasoning and logic to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems is a very important skill for a mental health social worker to have
  • Complex Problem Solving – the ability to identify complex problems and review related data in order to develop and evaluate various options and implement the correct solutions
  • Effective Communication – this includes the ability to communicate effectively with others both verbally and in writing, in order to convey important information effectively
  • Instruction – the ability to instruct others in order to teach them better ways of doing things
  • Learning Strategies – the ability to select and use the best and most appropriate training/instructional methods and procedures for a particular situation when learning or teaching new things
  • Monitoring – the ability to monitor/assess performance of self, other individuals, or organizations in order to institute improvements or take corrective action
  • Negotiation – the ability to bring others together in order to try to reconcile differences.
  • Persuasion – the power of Persuasion is important in order to get others to change their minds or destructive behavior
  • Systems Analysis – the ability to determine how a particular system should be working and how changes in operations, conditions, and environment could affect outcomes
  • Systems Evaluation – the ability to identify different indicators or measures of system performance and the actions required in order to correct or improve performance, relative to the goals of the system

There are also other skills required, such as management of personnel resources, judgment and decision-making, time management, coordination and reading comprehension.

Work Environment

Social workers held 650,500 jobs in 2010, and were employed in Hospitals and clinics, Nursing homes, Community mental health clinics, Private practices, State and local governments, Schools, Colleges and universities, Substance abuse clinics, Military bases and hospitals. The work in done mainly in an office, but there are also occasions that require a mental health social worker to go out into the field.

According to stats released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, the industries that employed the most mental health substance abuse social workers were:

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers 17%
Individual and family services 16
Hospitals; state, local, and private 14
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 10
Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals; state, local, and private 8

Mental health social workers generally work full-time, and like many other types of social workers, they may on occasion be required to work evenings or over a weekend.

How To Become A Mental Health Social Worker

The requirements to become a mental health social worker differ somewhat in various jurisdictions, but generally most states require that one have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Some jurisdictions also require a certain amount of fieldwork to be done before licensure can be obtained. It is possible to become a mental health social worker in some states with a bachelor’s degree other than the bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), if you have a bachelor’s degree in a closely related field.

Some positions, including those in schools and healthcare frequently require that applicants have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a closely-related subject. No matter what qualification is required, it is always a good idea to pursue a higher education, as it will help you to stand out among other job candidates, and will augur well for your future in the field.

All clinical social workers must have an MSW, which takes 2 years to complete, although there are some programs that allow those who already have a BSW to complete their MSW within 1 year. All MSW programs will prepare you for work in your chosen field, and help you to develop the skills to do clinical assessments, manage a large number of clients, and take on a supervisory role. All programs also include a compulsory amount of hours that must be done either in an internship or doing supervised fieldwork.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program, the job outlook for mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to grow by 31% between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average for other occupations.

This growth is expected to happen as a result of more people seeking treatment for addiction and mental illness. Drug offenders are increasingly being sent for treatment rather than to jail, therefore the use of substance abuse treatment programs is expected to grow exponentially, which will thereby increase the demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers.


Licensure varies by state, but all states do require some sort of certification or licensure requirement. Clinical social workers are required to be licensed in all states, and as such, as a mental health social worker you will be required to do what is required by the state in which you intend to practice in order to gain licensure.

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