A mental health social worker, also sometimes referred to as a psychiatric social worker, has several responsibilities. When a patient is first admitted to the hospital a mental health social worker may be responsible for the diagnosis. This diagnosis is often the result of not just interacting with the patient but also the patient’s family, friends, and/or coworkers.
For as long as the patient stays at the facility — whether an outpatient care facility or a hospital — the mental health social worker may provide group or individual therapy, as needed. The social worker may refer patients with extreme psychological disorders, or violent tendencies, to a psychiatrist for treatment.
A mental health social worker may also be responsible for creating a discharge plan which can lay out a path for a patient to successfully reintegrate into the community. This plan is typically drawn up while the patient is recovering. The plan will include various therapies that the patient should keep practicing even after they’ve been discharged from the facility.
Steps required to become a mental health social worker
The following guide lays out the necessary steps in order to start a career as a mental health social worker.
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work — It is important for a student to obtain a degree from a CSWE accredited university. The degree can be earned either in person or online.
- Complete a master’s degree in social work — Again, it’s important to only take a degree from a CSWE accredited university. While studying for their degree a student should take as many classes as possible which focus on mental health. A student may also want to take a summer program covering topics in psychiatric diagnosis and therapy, if one is available.
- Mental health internship — Many master’s programs require the student to take an internship. Students interested in mental health should consider an internship at a psychiatric hospital or outpatient facility.
- Obtain the required social work licensure — Although it varies from state to state, typically mental health social workers will begin their career with a license that only allows them to work under supervision. After 3,000 hours of supervised experience the social worker will qualify for an advanced license which will allow them to work unsupervised.
What is a mental health social worker?
To summarize the job in a sentence: mental health social workers rehabilitate persons suffering from mental illnesses so that they can go back to living a normal life. Mental health social workers may work in a hospital, a psychiatric hospital, an outpatient facility or make house calls to check on their patients.
The job of the mental health social worker is an important one since the rate of mental illness has been steadily rising since the 1970s. Some experts believe that we are currently experiencing an epidemic of mental illness. In fact, as many as one in four Americans may have a diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their life.
Certainly, most people will not end up in a psychiatric hospital, however, it’s likely that they will interact with a mental health professional at some point. Mental health social workers play a key role as they diagnose illnesses and provide therapy to help the patient recover.
As with other careers in medicine, the goal of a mental health social worker is to provide enough support to the patient so that they can resume a normal life. Mental health social workers often work with doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and other health professionals in order to create a good outcome for a client.
Mental health social worker requirements, skills, and experience
As with any job in the field of mental health there are certain requirements for psychiatric social workers. While some positions can be filled by candidates with a bachelor’s degree, in general it’s much better to have a master’s degree.
Mental health social workers who have their master’s will typically be paid more and have more autonomy in their job. MSW holders will also find it easier to advance their careers and obtain more prestigious positions within an organization.
In addition to a master’s degree there are a few other common requirements for a mental health professional.
- Confidentiality is a must and mental health social workers are expected to maintain their patient’s privacy
- A mental health social worker should be comfortable dealing with aggressive patients
- Problem solving skills, time management skills and the ability to closely follow procedure are all important
- A mental health social worker should have empathy and compassion even for difficult patients. A patient suffering from a mental illness may be hard to work with. Despite this, a psychiatric social worker must be able to maintain his or her composure
- Some positions require two years of experience, while others are open to recent graduates. Those new to the field should expect to work under supervision, until they gain the necessary competency and/or licensure to work unsupervised
What do mental health social workers do?
Mental health social workers work either one-on-one or in a group setting to administer therapy and accelerate the recovery of those suffering from a mental illness. A mental health social worker may be the first person that a patient meets when they’re admitted and the last person the patient sees on the day that they’re discharged.
At times the job of a mental health professional can be quite stressful. Patients can be difficult, anything that can go wrong will go wrong and the progress of patients may seem to be frustratingly slowly. However, there are a couple of benefits inherent to being a mental health professional.
- The job is different every day. For anyone who is bored by a routine, being a mental health social worker is anything but monotonous. Patients present a variety of conditions and there is always a fire to put out somewhere. It can be stressful and require a great deal of patience, however, boredom is not a word that comes up often.
- Helping a patient to recover can be incredibly rewarding. Doctors help a patient to regain their body, a mental health social worker helps a patient to regain their mind. The transformation can be startling.
The rewards can be especially vivid, as psychiatric social workers often work closely with the family. Those closest to the patient may appreciate the transformation even more than the patient does.
Mental health social worker job description
We’ve mentioned that mental health social workers rarely have a chance to get bored as their responsibilities are constantly changing. The following job description, posted by an employer, illustrates how the job description can vary.
“An employee in this class provides guidance, advice, and application of theory in treatment to patients, residents, and family where it is determined that treatment must include work on psychosocial problems.
An employee in this class may be assigned to or rotated among a number of assignments such as admissions, adult alcohol and drug abuse, children and youth, correctional, extended treatment, general, geriatric, residential care and treatment, or other program or unit assignment. Work normally includes some individual, group, and family therapy.”
Certificates or special training required for mental health social workers
The most important thing to understand is that the certification and training requirements for a psychiatric social worker will vary from state to state. Before starting the job search the applicant should check what the requirements are for the state that they’re planning on working in. (Check out our state pages for social work licensing requirements in each state.)
That being said, the following are a few of the most common requirements in order to begin a career as a mental health professional.
- Master’s in social work degree from a CSWE-accredited university
- American Red Cross or American Heart Association Basic Life Support Course (BLS or BCLS) certification
- Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) training
- Advanced social work licensure, varying from state to state
- Special certification courses in psychiatric and mental health services
Outlook for mental health social workers
BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) data indicates that there are currently 112,040 substance abuse and mental health social workers employed in the United States. Just under 25 percent of these social workers are employed in outpatient care centers.
California is the largest state employer of mental health social workers, followed closely by New York.
The overall employment projections for the field of social work are excellent. The BLS is predicting 13 percent job growth from 2019 to 2029, which makes social work one of the fastest growing job sectors in the entire United States.
How much do mental health social workers make?
According to the BLS, the mean annual wage for a mental health social worker is $47,830. The top 10 percent of all earners can expect a salary of $76,020 per year.
The highest mean annual wage for mental health social workers goes to those working in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals. On average these mental health social workers earn $52,830 per year.