Social workers are essential to the field of mental health. It’s estimated that social workers make up 65 percent of the professionals who provide mental health services in the United States. Psychiatric programs in hospitals, outpatient facilities, and community programs employ a number of highly skilled social workers who provide support to some of the most vulnerable patients.
There are several educational and experiential steps required to become a psychiatric social worker:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree
Psychiatric social workers may have a bachelor of social work or, if they obtain their master’s degree they may have a bachelor’s in another related field such as psychology, sociology, child development, or any other field that provides a background in human behavior.
- Obtain a master’s degree
Most psychiatric positions require a master’s degree, as these positions require workers to have or be in the process of obtaining the highest master’s level state licensure. Psychiatric social workers must be able to assess, diagnose, and create treatment plans. Social workers can independently legally diagnose and treat mental disorders only if they have full state licensure.
- Obtain licensure
The licensure process varies from state to state but usually includes completing a certain number of hours supervised by a licensed social worker and completing an exam. Most states use the Association for Social Work Boards licensure exam process. Some states have additional requirements such as completing a law and ethics exam.
What is a psychiatric social worker?
Psychiatric social workers are licensed clinical social workers providing services in hospitals, clinics, and community agencies that support patients struggling with mental illness and/or substance use. The patients they serve often have severe and persistent mental illness or substance use disorders that require more intensive care, such as 24-hour inpatient care. Social workers in these settings provide one-on-one psychotherapy and facilitate support groups as methods of treatment.
Psychiatric social workers collaborate with a care team of physicians, nurses, psychologists, and other health professionals to assess, diagnose, and treat patients. Psychiatric disorders require the development of insight into the disorder, behavior modification and other psychological, social, and emotional interventions to support recovery. Psychiatric social workers provide evidence-based psychotherapy, which is a key part of the treatment plan for patients in a psychiatric setting.
Psychiatric social workers also work with the families of patients. They provide psychoeducation about the patient’s illness and create transition plans to help the patient continue to get support once they are discharged from care.
While many psychiatric social workers practice in hospital settings, they can be employed in the following types of settings:
- Partial hospitalization or day treatment programs
- Emergency room or crisis management programs
Psychiatric social work requirements, skills, and experience:
Because of the unique environment in which they work, psychiatric social work requires a specific set of skills and experience to be successful.
Desire to be a helper. Social workers in the medical setting are often the primary support and advocate for the patient. They are working with patients and families at a time of high stress and often, confusion about what is happening in the process of care. Psychiatric social workers get to know their patient’s full history, help the patient identify their goals for treatment, make sure the patient’s goals are communicated to the entire care team, advocate for the patient should concerns arise, educate the patient about their care and help the patient transition after discharge. Psychiatric social workers are the ones who “hold the patient’s hand” through the process. To be a successful helper, the social worker must be a good listener, empathic, and an excellent communicator as they are often the bridge between the patient and their family and the treatment staff.
The appropriate education and licensure. While there are limited opportunities for bachelor’s level social workers in the medical setting, most psychiatric social workers require a master’s degree. Many positions require “licensed clinical social workers.” To become independently licensed, after graduating with their MSW, social workers must complete several hours of supervised clinical practice and take required exams. Licensure allows the social worker to legally assess, diagnose, and treat mental illness, emotional and behavioral disturbances.
Assessment, diagnostic, and treatment planning skills. Psychiatric social workers engage with patients and their families to gather a full history of experiences and symptoms, the assessment, to help figure out, or diagnose, what syndrome, disorder, or disease the patient is suffering from. Social workers ask patients about the current symptoms that are causing discomfort and previous mental, emotional, behavior, and even physical concerns that may continue to the problem. They also ask about family history, their social supports, use of substances, and other background information that can help with better understanding the problem and the best way to support the patient during treatment.
Case management. Psychiatric social workers also help find community resources for the patient. Since most patients will need to continue the management of their issues long after they leave treatment, social workers find community resources such as support groups or outpatient care that will increase the patient’s chances of staying well after they leave the social worker’s care.
Crisis management. In many psychiatric settings, patients arrive in a crisis; they may be under severe distress and often safety and time are of the essence. Social workers need to be able to think quickly and respond deliberately. In the psychiatric emergency room setting, social workers work in a fast paced environment where getting patients stabilized and triaged to the appropriate care is their main priority. While the ER setting is often what we think of for crisis management, all psychiatric social work settings manage the crisis at some point, as patients are struggling with serious issues.
What do psychiatric social workers do?
Psychiatric social workers often have similar general responsibilities but the way the work plays out may look different depending on the settings and type of patients. Below are two examples of psychiatric social worker positions.
In a substance use treatment hospital, a psychiatric social worker will be heavily involved in the patient’s recovery process from start to finish. Social workers are there to make sure patients understand their course of treatment, understand their motivations for treatment, and decide on treatment goals. Self-determination is a part of a social worker’s Code of Ethics, so making sure the patient’s wishes are honored is an important role of the psychiatric social worker. This may mean that when a patient isn’t ready to stop using substances during rehab, they have to support the patient in processing through what that means for their time in treatment.
Another setting for psychiatric social workers is adolescent day treatment for teens struggling with mental illness or emotional disturbances. The programs provide structured individual and group therapy sessions five days per week for 4 or more hours per day. Sometimes the programs even include educational components so that patients can keep up with school while they’re seeking treatment. Psychiatric social workers in this setting have to meet the unique developmental needs of kids and often have additional training in mental health issues with children and teens. While many treatment programs work with families to support the patient, family work is especially important for kids. Social workers provide individual and group sessions to parents and guardians to help them learn how to support their children.
Psychiatric social work job description:
Here’s an example job posting from a Family and Children’s Services position. The requirements are similar to most psychiatric social worker positions, but it’s unique because it is a mobile crisis position.
“Providing a range of accessible crisis services which divert individuals experiencing behavioral health crises from inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, jail, and emergency rooms, Family & Children’s Services works to heal hurting and abused children, strengthen families, and provide hope and a path to recovery for those battling mental illness and addiction. Join our team as a Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services (COPES) therapist where you will perform telephone, mobile crisis, and clinic-based triage, assessment, and stabilization working in a facility that provides 23-hour observational care in a safe, supportive recovery environment. This position receives a shift and weekend premiums if applicable.”
Certificates or special training required for psychiatric social work:
Most psychiatric social worker positions require licensure or will require the worker to obtain their license within a certain amount of time after being hired. Social workers must participate in continuing education to maintain their license. If working in telehealth, a social worker may desire to obtain licenses in multiple states. Some positions may require specific certifications and training and may offer the opportunity to get the additional certification as an employee. Here are some examples of certifications:
- Certified social worker in health care
- Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor or Licensed Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor
- Certified Clinical Trauma Professional
Outlook for psychiatric social work:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare social work is expected to increase by 17 percent by 2028, which is much faster than other industries. As the de-stigmatization of mental illness continues and parodies for mental health treatment becomes more structured, more people will begin to seek treatment.
How much do psychiatric social workers make?
According to the National Association of Social Workers, the median annual salary for a psychiatric social worker is $60,000 with as low as $37,000 and as high as $83,000.