By Bethanny Parker
Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Published on September 2, 2021
Although some social workers only need a bachelor's degree, psychiatric social worker is a master's specialization that requires not only a master's degree, but also a license. This guide covers the educational requirements to become a psychiatric social worker as well as licensure requirements. We also delve into job outlook and salary expectations.
What Is a Psychiatric Social Worker?
A psychiatric social worker provides services to people living with mental health conditions. These services may include psychotherapy.
The social worker's goal is to ensure that their clients have the resources they need to function well in the community. These professionals stay in contact with the patient's family and meet with other members of the mental health team to determine what resources are required.
What Does a Psychiatric Social Worker Do?
A psychiatric social worker works with patients who manage mental health conditions, often in medical and mental health facilities.
These professionals often put together discharge plans for their patients. This process starts when the patient is admitted and ends with a fully-formed plan when the patient is ready to be discharged. The psychiatric social worker makes sure the patient will have the support they need to successfully navigate life after discharge.
Psychiatric social workers may also provide psychotherapy and diagnose mental health conditions. If you are interested in mental health and feel drawn to providing services to patients with mental health conditions, you may find satisfaction in a psychiatric social work career.
Psychiatric Social Worker Responsibilities
- Psychosocial and Risk Assessments: Psychiatric social workers evaluate the psychological and social well-being of their patients and determine whether they are at risk.
- Individualized, Family, and Group Psychotherapy: Psychiatric social workers provide psychotherapy, both in group and individual settings.
- Crisis Intervention and Support: Psychiatric social workers step in when their patients deal with a crisis, such as having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide.
- Care Coordination: Psychiatric social workers coordinate their patients' care with other mental health workers, including psychiatrists and mental health nurses.
- Discharge Planning Services: Psychiatric social workers plan for their patients' discharges by making arrangements for the resources they will need.
Psychiatric Social Worker Job Demand and Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029. Although the BLS does not provide projections for psychiatric social workers, the projected growth rate for mental health and substance misuse social workers during that same period is 17%. This rate is much faster than the national average (4%).
PayScale data from August 2021 reports that the average psychiatric social worker salary is around $54,630 per year. The largest employers for social workers are individual and family services, local government, inpatient healthcare services, ambulatory healthcare services, and state government. However, psychiatric social workers are more likely to work in hospitals than other social workers.
How Do I Become a Psychiatric Social Worker?
To get a job as a psychiatric social worker, you need the proper education and training. First, you must earn a bachelor's degree in social work. After that, you need a master of social work (MSW) degree.
Then, in most states, you need two years of supervised work experience before you can become a licensed social worker. Since psychiatric social workers offer psychotherapy, they are considered clinical social workers and must be licensed.
Complete a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work
The first step to becoming a psychiatric social worker is completing your bachelor's degree in social work. Candidates with a bachelor's in sociology or a bachelor's in psychology may also be considered for social worker jobs, but if you know you want to be a social worker, a bachelor's degree in social work is the best choice.
Admission requirements vary but typically include a minimum GPA and minimum ACT or SAT scores. Many schools also require an essay as part of the application process.
Make sure to choose a school with Council on Social Work Education accreditation. This accreditation is required by most states for licensure.
Depending on the school, you may be able to choose a concentration for your bachelor's in social work. Typical concentrations include the following:
- Courts and the Legal System
- Crisis and Trauma
- Forensics and the Criminal Justice System
- Healthcare Settings
- Diversity and Multiculturalism: This course covers issues related to diversity, including ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and gender identity.
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment: This course explores the complexity of the human experience and why people act the way they do.
- Introduction to Social Work: This course covers professionalism and ethics as applied to social work careers.
- Policy and Advocacy: This course helps students evaluate the effects of various laws and policies relevant to social work and teaches them how to advocate for better policies.
- Professional Practice: This course covers boundaries, ethics, self-care, and legal concerns for practitioners in the social work field.
Consider a Master's Degree in Social Work
If you want to be a psychiatric social worker, you must become licensed to provide clinical services to patients. In most states, licensure requires a master's degree and at least two years of supervised experience.
For admission into a master's program in social work, most schools require a minimum undergraduate GPA and a bachelor's degree in social work or a closely related field. Applicants must also submit letters of recommendation from professors or supervisors.
Some schools offer concentrations in their MSW programs. The most common concentrations include the following:
- Advanced Generalist
- Clinical/Direct Practice Social Work
- Community Development
- Introduction to Social Work: This course introduces students to key social work values, ideas, skills, and concepts.
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment: This course teaches knowledge and theories related to sociological, biological, spiritual, and psychological development throughout the human lifespan.
- Couples and Family Therapy: This course prepares students to provide clinical therapy services for couples and families.
- Substance Misuse: This course promotes an understanding of why substance misuse occurs and how to treat it.
- Strategic Planning: This course helps students learn how to create and implement a strategic plan for their organizations.
Establish State Licensure
Each state maintains unique requirements for social work licensure, but most require a master's degree and a specific kind of license for any job that involves clinical work.
For example, Michigan offers the following licenses: limited social service technician, registered social service technician, licensed bachelor social worker, and licensed master social worker (LMSW). The state requires the LMSW license for clinical applications.
In most states, the license that allows the social worker to do clinical work requires a master's degree, at least two years of supervised work, a fee, and an examination. A license is not required for every social worker job, but most jobs that involve clinical services require licensure.
Additional Social Work Jobs
If you major in social work, you can find many opportunities to use your degree beyond psychiatric social work. You can become a school social worker, a child and family social worker, a healthcare social worker, or another type of social worker.
- School Social Worker: These social workers work in a school and help parents, teachers, and administrators support children with social, mental health, and behavioral issues.
- Child and Family Social Worker: These social workers help children who may be experiencing abuse, neglect, homelessness, and economic hardship.
- Healthcare Social Worker: These social workers help people navigate the healthcare system to get the services they need.
- Mental Health and Substance Misuse Social Worker: These social workers work with clients managing mental health conditions and substance misuse.
- Public Policy Advocate/Planner: These social workers advocate for policies and procedures that they believe will make a positive difference in people's lives.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Psychiatric Social Worker
If you enjoy working with and advocating for people with mental health conditions, you'll probably enjoy being a psychiatric social worker. The career pays reasonably well, and psychiatric social workers are respected professionals in the community.
Although both psychiatrists and psychiatric social workers can perform psychotherapy, psychiatric social workers lack the medical training that psychiatrists have. For this reason, patients must see a psychiatrist or other medical doctor to receive a prescription for psychiatric medication.
A psychiatric social worker must be a great listener and know what questions to ask. They must be creative about figuring out what services will benefit the patient. They must be diligent, ensuring they don't make any mistakes when planning out a patient's care. Above all, they must be caring and have compassion for the patients they treat.
At psychiatric social work clinics, social workers assess patients' socioeconomic, interpersonal, emotional, and social conditions and find ways to enable patients to live well. At these clinics, social workers perform counseling and therapy, teach coping skills, and educate patients about their conditions.
No. Psychiatric social workers do not have medical training and cannot prescribe medications. Patients who need medications must see a doctor or psychiatrist to get the prescriptions they need to treat their conditions. However, psychiatric social workers can be part of a multidisciplinary team to offer input on a client's plan of care.
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: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images
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