The fields of social work and psychology overlap in a lot of ways. Afterall, there are a lot of mental health components when providing social work services, and there are a lot of impacts to overall well-being and larger communities like families and communities that are linked back to the individual care provided by psychologists.
But the two fields are also distinctively different. This guide looks at the similarities and differences between social work and psychology — and finds places where the professions are similar, and places where they are different.In this guide
- What is social work?
- What is psychology?
- Social work versus mental health work
- Professional education and training
- Mental health career paths
- Employment opportunities
What is social work?
Social work began in Europe out of the need to “manage the poor” when poverty was considered a crime. Social work in the early days was not a credentialed profession, it was generally led by churches or Women’s League-type organizations. During the early days, the social worker became a feared entity, much like the cartoon caricature of the dog catcher. Many children were removed from homes of the poor and placed in the homes of more affluent families and often treated as servants, rarely as a child. Parents became indentured servants to “earn” the return of the children. Needless to say, the profession did not start off as it is known today.
Later, social work became a profession in the United States in the early 19th century out of a need to provide skills and jobs to immigrants and home placements for orphaned children during wartime in Europe, and really burgeoned later in the United States as a result of WWI and II the Dust Bowl, and Great Depression. It later grew as an “acceptable” profession for women during a time when few women were in the workforce.
The field of social work is different from government run social services such as the Department of Children and Families or The Department of Human Resources. The field today has grown in areas of research and practice meeting the needs of communities, individuals, and families across many segments of society, not just the poor. Social work is now a regulated and licensed profession, and many licensed social workers go into private practice or agency work seeing individuals, families, and groups with a variety of social as well as mental health issues.
To earn licensure as a social worker, individuals must hold a minimum of a master’s degree in social work or a comparable discipline, such as counseling or psychology, and complete a required number of practicum and internship hours during the final year of the master’s program. Those with a non-social work master’s degree may have to take additional coursework and gain practicum and intern hours post-graduate, depending upon the state in which they wish to be licensed.
Upon graduation, individuals are required to complete requisite hours of supervision by an approved licensed social worker. The number of hours required to sit for the licensing exam differs from state to state. It is advisable to refer to the particular state licensing board for requirements. The most common license available is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
What is psychology?
Psychology is a profession that studies human as well as animal behavior through study of individuals, groups, or organizations. There are many branches of psychology that serve in research areas as well as the study and treatment of mental illness and behavioral problems. A few of the branches of psychology are:
- Industrial and organizational
- School psychology
For work in mental health, clinical and counseling practitioners must hold a minimum of a master’s degree in the discipline and be licensed to practice by their state licensing board. There are different licenses for which individuals may seek, these include:
- Licensed clinical psychologist – this requires a PhD or PsyD from an APA accredited program.
- Counseling Psychologist – requires a PhD or PsyD in counseling psychology
- Marriage and family therapy – requires a minimum of a master’s degree in MFT or related discipline and requisite course work.
- Licensed professional counselor – Minimum of a master’s degree in counseling or psychology and state licensure.
- Licensed mental health counselor – Minimum of a master’s degree in counseling or psychology and state licensure.
The above list of mental health and social work titles is not all inclusive as these may vary from state to state. Anyone thinking of entering or changing careers to social work should do a bit of research prior to selecting a program of the state licensing agencies as well as professional membership organizations.
Social work versus mental health work
There are few differences between a licensed clinical social worker and a mental health counselor. Each provides short-term counseling for a variety of life problems, such as issues related to life phase adjustments, i.e., career, relocation, divorce, etc. However, for more severe mental illnesses such major depressive, psychotic disorders, and most personality disorders seeing a psychotherapist for longer-term therapy is most helpful. Even then a licensed clinical social worker can provide counseling for individuals who are stabilized and need help re-adjusting to home-life and the community.
In both disciplines, there are options to work in private practice, agency, non-profit, residential in-patient, or community-based services. Most often when seeking employment individuals will see ads for LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), LSW (Licensed Social Worker), LMFT (Licensed Marriage, and Family Therapist), LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor) as interchangeable. Depending upon the agency or practice’s served population this well may be so, as most will have a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist also on staff to supervise treatment.
Mental health professional education and training
Both fields, social work, and mental health, require a minimum of a master’s degree in order to qualify for licensure. Part of the educational program is one year of practicum and internship at an approved clinical or community-based site. Most state licensing boards prefer that candidates for licensure attend schools that are regionally accredited as well as accredited by such associations as:
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- American Counseling Association (ACA)
- Commission on Accreditation of American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists Education (COAMFTE)
- The Counsel for Accreditation for Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Counsel on Social Work Education (CSWE)
Each of these will have a list of accredited schools and programs.
While marriage and family therapists, social workers, and counselors can become licensed with a minimum of a master’s degree, to be licensed as a clinical or counseling psychologist, a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology is required for licensure to practice.
Mental health professional career paths
Upon graduation from a master of social work or master of clinical social work program, students who are seeking licensure will be required to participate in post-graduate internships or residencies in which they receive supervision by a CSWE approved supervisor in addition to their site director/supervisor. Those who are fortunate may be allowed to continue their internships/residencies at their practicum site. Most states require three years and 2,500-3,000 hours of supervised clinical or field work.
It cannot be stressed enough that prior to beginning any graduate program of study in social work, it is a wise idea to check with the state board for requirements. The CSWE website is a reliable source for finding information about licensing requirements specific to the state in which you plan to become licensed.
While enrolled in a program of study, graduate students are often encouraged to join the professional organization associated with their discipline as well as obtain malpractice/liability insurance. Membership in nationwide as well as state and local organizations provides many networking and mentoring opportunities as well as courses for earning professional development units needed for licensure renewal.
Due to an increase in the need for services since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the mental health and community services fields are experiencing a shortage of clinicians and field workers. Due to this shortage, licensed social workers are in high demand in agencies as well as private practice.
There is also a call for mental health professionals and social workers to serve with first responders in situations such as domestic calls and traffic stops. Mental health and social work professionals are much better trained in crisis intervention and are often not perceived as a threat to citizens involved in domestic violence or who are stopped by the police for driving under the influence or other traffic violations.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that a large number of lives could have been saved had a trained crisis interventionist been on these calls with police. In the past two years alone the numbers of families losing a loved one who was in a state of mental health crisis has increased. Families of color are especially afraid to call on police when there is a mental health crisis, further intensifying the need for help.
During times of natural disasters and other situations that increase the numbers of individuals and families seeking services, social workers are often called upon to help agencies such as the Red Cross with crisis intervention.
Due to the number of health care workers over all who have left their careers due to concerns over theirs as well as their families’ health during the height of the pandemic, many mental health-care and social work disciplines are able to find travel opportunities to different states in order to fill spots made available by the shortage of workers. These positions pay well, provide travel, housing, food allowances. During these financially uncertain times, husbands, wives, partners, parents are taking advantage of these opportunities to serve communities in need as well as provide for their families.
No matter which career path is taken, there is a great deal of overlap within the professions of social work and mental health. Each provides the opportunity to help individuals, families, couples, and communities as they navigate everyday life struggles or larger crises such as a global pandemic, natural disasters, socio-political conflict, and other issues that broadly impact a society. Due to these issues, many of them ongoing, there is a shortage of mental health professionals to meet the growing needs posed by these challenging matters.
With a bachelor’s degree you can work for governmental agencies, or as a para-professional in many residential treatment facilities. You can also move forward to obtain a master’s degree to seek licensure.
As long as a person is licensed, he or she can either open a small practice or work with a larger practice.
Brief counseling or therapy is provided for situational crises, such as grief, or life-stage adjustments. Long-term therapy or on-going therapy is provided for chronic or recurring conditions such as major depressive disorders and mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and most personality disorders. Long-term psychotherapy is often recommended in lieu of in-patient, whereas short-term therapy is inappropriate for anyone who may be at risk for hospitalization.
Depending upon the agency, practice, and the state, a LCSW as well as any other licensed clinician can provide a provisional diagnosis, then refer the patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist to confirm the diagnosis.
A four-year degree is required for entry into a master’s degree program and most master’s degree programs are three years or less.
This requirement will vary from state-to-state depending on local requirements.
Yes. An increasing number of major universities are offering their social work programs online. Some have a minimum residency requirement, and some do not. As with any program, be sure it is nationally as well as regionally accredited by the appropriate agencies. Always check with your state licensing boards for confirmation of any other requirements.
As with most professions, salary is based upon education, experience, and what an agency or practice is willing to pay. The best way to ensure you are getting paid based upon your value, is to engage in continuing education and become certified in as many areas of specialty as possible.
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