How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

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Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on September 3, 2021

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According to Mental Health America, more than 19% of Americans experienced some type of mental health condition in 2017-18. And that was before the additional stress and challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are all on the rise in the U.S., particularly among young people. The need for accessible and effective support services is greater than ever before. Mental health social workers are on the front lines, helping to meet this challenge.

Well-trained, experienced, and licensed at the state level, many mental health social workers need to complete specific requirements to enter the profession.

To help prospective students start their journey on the right foot, this guide spotlights the discipline, relevant educational options, and career opportunities for graduates.

What Is a Mental Health Social Worker?

A mental health social worker assists people struggling with various mental health conditions. Depending on their career and license, these professionals may connect patients with support programs and services and provide clinical psychotherapy services. They also may specialize in a specific condition, addiction, or demographic.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Mental health social workers provide various services for individuals, groups, and organizations. At the clinical level, they may introduce patients to coping strategies and supportive resources for their specific mental health challenges. These professionals also help patients with the emotional, physical, and social effects of their condition, such as poor diets, substance misuse, and emotional distress.

Careers in social work and mental health give professionals the chance to make a crucial difference in society. Mental health social workers can develop programs, policies, and community initiatives for groups and organizations.

They can collaborate with other healthcare professionals and work for various organizations and industries, including schools, treatment centers, and community centers.

Mental Health Social Worker Responsibilities

Mental Health Social Worker Job Demand and Salary

Mental health social workers are likely to join a strong employment landscape. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 17% job growth for mental health and substance abuse social workers between 2019 and 2029, which would translate to more than 20,000 new jobs during that time.

The projected growth in mental health social work exceeds many other social worker fields. This is due to a growing focus on mental health services and the legal system using social work treatment programs as alternatives to jail sentences. Mental health social workers earned a median annual salary of $48,720, as of May 2020.

Mental health social workers primarily practice in individual and family services, government, and ambulatory healthcare services. Other opportunities may include residential and outpatient mental health centers, as well as private practice clinical settings.

How Do I Become a Mental Health Social Worker?

Mental health social workers come from various educational backgrounds. While a bachelor's in social work (BSW) can lead to various administrative and entry-level positions, many of the best social work jobs require a master's in social work (MSW). Many roles also require a license — graduates with the appropriate education and experience can qualify for these credentials.

Complete a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

In most states, a BSW is the minimum degree level required for mental health social workers. The best BSW programs can equip students with the necessary analytical, assessment, and problem-solving skills, along with professional ethics and a system of support strategies.

Applicants need a high school or GED diploma and a strong GPA, along with strong SAT scores or ACT scores and quality application essays. When choosing a college, prospective learners should ensure their school holds the appropriate accreditation. To go on and obtain licensure, social work students should attend a program that holds accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Curricula can vary considerably between schools. Aspiring mental health social workers should look for programs that offer courses focused in their target field. This may include courses focusing on behavioral health, mental disorders, and intervention strategies.

Concentrations can help with further training and employment in the field, particularly in the following areas:

BSW degrees can offer a pathway to nonclinical mental health social worker careers and licenses. Other related disciplines at this level may also allow graduates to work in these or similar positions. Degrees in psychology or counseling, for example, may qualify graduates for some social worker roles, along with entry-level mental health counselor careers.

Typical Undergraduate-Level Courses

Consider a Master's Program

Many employers require a master's degree for social work positions. However, all states require licensed clinical social workers to possess an MSW, at minimum. The best MSW programs provide students with skills in mental health diagnosis and treatment, program development, and communication. They also can offer training in collaborating with other mental health professionals and working with policies and community programs.

The graduate admissions process varies by school, but most programs require applicants to have a BSW or related degree. Prospective students also may need to meet a GPA minimum and submit GRE scores. When deciding on graduate school, prospective students need to look for both regionally and CSWE-accredited schools and programs.

Learners might consider specializing in the following areas:

  • Mental Health
  • Substance Misuse
  • Healthcare
  • Criminal Justice
  • Trauma-Informed Social Work
  • Advocacy, Administration, and Policy Development

Another major aspect of an MSW program is the practicum and practice-based training. Students should choose a program that provides clinical training opportunities in their field. Many schools have developed relationships with local mental health organizations. These can lead to postgraduate work opportunities and an easier path to meeting licensure requirements.

Typical Graduate-Level Courses

  • Social Policy
  • Human and Family Development
  • Social Work Supervision
  • Issues in Addiction Treatment
  • Advanced Interventions

Establish State Licensure

In every state, social workers need licensure for employment in a clinical setting, though entry-level and nonclinical positions may not require it. The names and types of licenses vary by state. Mental health social workers also can pursue different types of credentials, including licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and certified social worker in healthcare (C-SWHC).

Social work certificates, certifications, and licenses differ. Schools and professional organizations can issue certificates and/or certifications, while government agencies issue licenses. A license is mandatory when working directly with clients. Additionally, the C-SWHC credential may be optional but can help professionals find employment as mental health social workers.

For licensure eligibility, applicants typically need an MSW plus two years and 3,000 hours of postgraduate supervised experience. LCSW candidates need supervised clinical hours, while C-SWHC candidates need to work in a treatment center. All candidates also need to pass the appropriate exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) and apply for licensure with their state board.

Additional Social Work Jobs

The social work field offers many different roles and responsibilities. While some students pursue clinical social work careers, there are other opportunities, such as administrative and management positions. Social workers also can explore adjacent industries, such as counseling and criminal justice, or even careers that require more training, such as psychology.

Positions in adjacent industries include:

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Mental Health Social Worker

How long does it take to become a mental health social worker? true

In most states, mental health social workers need a master's degree and a minimum of two years and 3,000 hours of postgraduate experience. All together, it may take more than eight years of postsecondary education and training, though some accelerated educational pathways may be available.

What does a mental health social worker do? true

Mental health social workers can provide an array of services. Typically, they offer counseling and treatment programs for clients struggling with mental health issues. They also connect people with various social services and professionals based on their needs.

How many mental health social workers are there? true

According to the BLS, there were more than 123,000 mental health and substance abuse social workers employed in 2019 — the third-largest group in the field. The BLS projects the field to employ more than 143,000 professionals by 2029.

What qualifications do you need to be a mental health worker?

Requirements vary by state but usually include a master's degree with a focus in mental health. Candidates also typically need at least two years and 3,000 hours of supervised experience in a mental health facility. This can qualify them for the mandatory ASWB examination, state licensure, and the optional C-SWHC credential.

What's the difference between a social worker and a mental health social worker?

Some mental health social workers hold specialized licensure, such as the C-SWHC credential, or may be LCSWs working in the mental health field. Unlicensed social workers usually do not work with clients directly, and many may possess lower levels of education and experience.

Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.


Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

Need a career change, but don't know where to start? Learn ways to explore new career options and decide the right path for you. Learn the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and others — and find resources that lead to a happier and healthier college career. BestColleges and a panel of experts explore the challenges students with mental health problems face when navigating postsecondary education

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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