Although social workers and psychologists are both in the helping profession and offer counseling services, there are some differences between the two careers. A general social worker helps clients cope with human rights, socio-economic, legal and/or poverty issues. A clinical social worker, on the other hand, provides supports services to clients with emotional, mental and/or behavioral issues. This type of social worker usually works in a hospital, clinic, skilled nursing facility or private practice. He/she typically utilizes a multi-faceted therapy approach, with a focus on helping clients improve their emotional, physical and/or financial status.
On the flip side, a psychologist focuses on human behavior and examines how the human mind functions. In other words, a psychologist explores why people think and behave the way they do. His/her main function is to diagnose and treat a variety of mental health and emotional problems. This type of health professional typically specializes in one particular area such as: elderly, children, couples or families.
Both a social worker and a psychologist are required to have a bachelor’s degree or higher to practice, but there are some differences in the type of degree needed to practice in each profession.
A social worker must have a master’s degree (M.A.) in social work to practice as a social worker. Although it is not required to have a bachelor’s degree in social work, it is important to take courses in sociology, psychology and economics before graduating from an undergraduate program. Social workers also have to be licensed before offering clinical services to clients. A social worker must successfully complete at least 3,000 hours of clinical supervision and pass the licensure exam to be classified as a licensed social worker.
A psychologist, on the other hand, must have a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.) to practice. It is not required to major in psychology in order to enter a graduate psychology program. Once the psychologist has successfully received his/her master’s degree in a psychology-related area, he/she must obtain a doctoral degree in psychology, complete a supervised internship (in psychology) and pass a licensure and/or certification exam.
Social Worker Responsibilities
General social workers provide support services to clients experiencing financial, physical, emotional, mental and/or legal hardships (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). They help clients obtain childcare services, living assistance, health care and/or welfare benefits. Clinical social workers, also known as licensed clinical social workers, tend to help clients receive more clinical services such as counseling and/or therapy. A clinical social worker treats a variety of emotional, mental and behavioral disorders like depression and anxiety. When appropriate, a social worker refers clients to mental health specialists like psychologists and/or psychiatrists.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), the main goals of clinical social workers are: to create treatment plans and provide counseling to individuals, families, couples, children and/or groups. They typically collaborate with other health professionals (such as: physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses) to support the client’s emotional, physical and mental health.
Psychologists study, examine and document how people respond and relate to each other and the world around them (American Psychological Association, 2013). A clinical psychologist may interview clients, order diagnostic tests, administer personality, performance and/or intelligence assessments and/or provide counseling services (such as: behavior modification programs, cognitive-behavior therapy, etc.). It is important to note that only two states: Louisiana and New Mexico allow clinical psychologists to prescribe medications to clients.
According to the American Psychological Association (2013), most psychologists split their time between conducting research studies, teaching and providing counseling services/psychotherapy. When practicing, a psychologist’s main responsibility is to utilize a variety of psychological techniques and methods (interviews, observations and/or psychological tests) to assess and treat the client’s emotional and psychological issues.
Once the psychologist has diagnosed the client, he/she develops a treatment plan specifically tailored to the client’s needs. The psychologist may collaborate with other health professionals (like a clinical social worker) or he/she may work alone. If the psychologist does not feel that he/she can provide the services that the client needs, he/she refers the client to another healthcare professional like a social worker, specialized psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. (American Psychological Association, 2013).
Similarities & Differences
There are many similarities between social workers and psychologists. For instance, both provide counseling/supportive functions to the clients. Social service agencies like child protective services tend to hire people with sociology, social work or psychology degrees to perform the same or similar tasks. In addition, most graduate and doctoral programs train social work and psychology students in the same or similar manner.
In other words, clinical social workers offer many of the same counseling/support services as clinical psychologists. The majority of clinical social workers and clinical psychologists use a variety of psychological techniques to assess, diagnosis and counsel individuals, children, couples, families and groups.
The main difference between psychologists and social workers is that psychologists are also are trained to administer psychological tests (like intelligence and personality assessments), while social workers are not. In addition, psychologists tend to have a slightly different perspective of the therapeutic process. They tend to focus more on cognitive processes and behaviors then social workers.
Social workers provide social service resources to clients (food stamps, welfare benefits, etc.), while psychologists provide mental health services (counseling and therapy) to clients. As mentioned previously the lines between social work and psychology are often blurred so it is possible for both social workers and psychologists to perform the same or similar duties.
Moreover, both social workers and psychologists tend to work in the same settings (private practices, educational institutions, mental health facilities, hospitals, clinics, skilled nursing facilities and community centers, but psychologists can specialize in other areas besides clinical and general psychology (like marriage and family therapy, corporate psychology, school psychology, sports psychology or health psychology).
On the other hand, social workers tend to be classified as general social workers or clinical social workers with an emphasis on children, individuals, families, couples and/or groups. Lastly, psychologists, unlike general social workers, have more opportunities to teach graduate studies and conduct research studies.