Difference Between a Master’s Degree in Social Work and Mental Health Counseling


Did you recently graduate, or are you thinking of returning to college for a better or new degree? If so, it is your lucky day because this article will help you decide if you want to enter the field of social work or mental health counseling. Although the two degree programs and career paths are similar, there are some noticeable differences between them. What are they? Well, the most significant difference is that graduate social work programs prepare students for field work, also known as direct care services. In other words, these programs teach students how to be caring and empathetic when working directly for patients and clients (i.e. offering assistance to them).

Mental health counseling graduate programs prepare students to provide indirect care services (counseling services) to clients and patients. In addition, mental health counselors rarely extend their services beyond the counseling room. In other words, a mental health counselor may offer resources, but he or she normally does not venture to homes or teach clients and patients how to seek employment and care for themselves (i.e. basic life skills), unlike social workers.

What are the Differences Between these Two Master’s Degrees?

Well, truthfully, these two degree programs are very similar; however, there are some distinct differences between the two. To begin, although both programs require 2 to 3 years to complete, and an internship/practicum, the graduate social work program focuses on teaching students how to provide services and offer resources to clients and patients. In other words, this master-level program prepares students to provide assistance to a variety of people, in a variety of difficult situations. This program does not teach students how to “counsel” clients and patients, per say, rather it teaches them how to improve client and patient lives by making sure they are aware and have access to beneficial resources.

The main function of a social worker is to make sure his or her clients and patients get to their appointments, complete paperwork, live independently, etc. Basically his or her job is to make sure that these individuals have the best chance in life as possible – which may include enrolling them in classes, teaching them how to bathe, cook, clean, and find employment. A mental health counseling degree, on the other hand, teaches students how to help clients and patients resolve their problems (i.e. emotional distress, relationship dysfunction, psychological/mental health disorders, etc.).Unlike a social worker, a master-level mental health counselor does not typically provide direct care services to patients, rather they only see their clients, while in “session” and they only provide counseling services.

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In other words, a mental health counselor normally does not transport clients and patients, and he or she typically does not go to client/patient homes. It is important to note that some bachelor-level counseling jobs require mental health counselors to perform “in-home counseling services,” however these jobs are really social work jobs, masked as counseling jobs. It is important to note that most master-level counselors are not required to perform “in-home counseling services.” Also, in many cases, social workers do not have to have a master’s degree or doctorate to “practice” as a social worker, however, a master’s degree (and license) is required to “practice” as a “mental health counselor, and a doctorate (and license) is required to “practice” as a mental health psychologist.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic (2015), social workers typically make between $44,000 and $55,000, per year, depending on their education level, licensure status, experience in the field, and location (i.e. town, city, state and/or country), while master-level mental health counselors typically make about $60,000 (or more), per year, depending on their location (i.e. city, state, etc.), past experience, state licensure, and educational background (bls.gov). The career outlook for both social workers and mental health counselors is positive.

What Do I Have to Do to Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work?

Well, you will first need to earn a bachelor’s degree (of your choice) from an accredited college or university. Once you have successfully graduated from your undergraduate program, you will be able to enroll in a graduate social work program at the college or university of your choice. It is important to note that you must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an approved social work graduate program, and obtain a state social work license to practice as a “social worker.”

Most graduate social work programs consist of two components – general college courses (i.e. natural sciences, math, English composition, social sciences, etc.) and specialized sociology/social work courses (i.e. intro to psychology, sociology, social work practices, social welfare policies, research, abnormal psychology, working with diverse population, ethics, etc.), and a practicum/internship at an approved social services agency, hospital, nursing home, assistant living, clinic, government/state agency, residential treatment facility, etc.

You must complete the internship within 6 to 12 months, depending on your program. Courses may include: social policy and service delivery in social work, foundations of human behaviors, direct care service practices, research design in social work, foundations of social justice: values, diversity, power & oppression, community and organization dynamics, strategies of clinical social work intervention, diversity, evaluative research in clinical social work practice, policies, and graduate field practicum.

It may take you 2 to 3 years to complete a social work program. It is important to note that although many colleges and universities offer doctoral and/or post-doctoral degrees, they are not required to obtain licensure and practice as a social worker.

A master’s degree in social work may allow you to pursue a career as a: business executive (i.e. human resources, retail manager, business manager, vice president, president, etc.), sociology college instructor, child and family caseworker, researcher, and/or a licensed clinical social worker at a private practice, clinic, hospital, nursing home, or social services agency.

What are the Main Functions of a Social Worker?

If you decide to pursue licensure as a “clinical social worker” (LCSW), your main tasks will be to help improve the lives, health and well-being of clients and patients under your care. This is referred to as “direct care services.” Basically, you will be responsible for providing resources, transportation, basic life skill assistance, guidance, etc. for your clients and patients. You may also be required to take clients and patients, who are unable to drive, to their court dates, doctor’s appointments, therapy, government/state/social service agencies, and/or counseling services.

Moreover, you may be required to help clients and patients complete paperwork. If they are disabled and/or developmentally delayed, you may be responsible for teaching them basic life skills (i.e. cooking, cleaning, etc.) and/or enrolling them in school (i.e. trade school, local college, etc.). You may also need to help them obtain employment, or file for unemployment or disability. You will most likely develop treatment plans for clients and patients, and in some instances, be responsible for conducting counseling sessions (i.e. individual, couple, family, child, and groups).

Furthermore, you will work with a variety of mental health and general health professionals (i.e. registered nurses, other clinical social workers, physicians, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and psychologists) to provide quality care to clients and patients. So, it is important that you work well with others (i.e. clients, patients and medical staff). The main goal of a social worker is to ensure the well-being of others, especially those, who are financially disadvantaged, developmentally delayed, under age, elderly, chronically ill, and disabled.

What Do I Have to Do to Earn a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling?

Master-level mental health counseling degree requirements are similar to those of master-level social work degree requirements. Mental health counseling is also known simply as counseling or general counseling. To earn a master’s degree in this field, you must earn a degree from an undergraduate (bachelor-level) program. You can choose any field to earn your bachelor degree in – the key is just to have the degree. Once you have graduated, you will be ready to enroll in a mental health counseling graduate program. This program should take approximately 2.5 years to complete. You will most likely be required to complete a 6 month to 1 year practicum/internship.

Courses may include: school counseling, counseling diverse populations, sociology, social work practices, mental health counseling, clinical counseling, general psychology, and marriage and family therapy, child counseling, couples counseling, group counseling, family counseling, and health counseling. It is important to note that you will need to obtain licensure as a “licensed professional counselor” (LPC) in order to practice (provide services) as a “mental health counselor.” It is also important to point out that you will not be able to call yourself a “mental health psychologist” without a doctorate and a license under your belt. You will, however, be able to call yourself a “mental health counselor” or “mental health therapist” with a master’s degree in psychology, and a license in a psychological field.

It is important to note that only people, who graduate with a master’s degree in counseling, will be allowed to sit for the licensure exam, so research your state’s licensure requirements before enrolling in a graduate counseling program. Once you obtain licensure as a professional counselor (LPC), you will be able to pursue a career as a mental health counselor, mental health therapist, counseling college instructor, school counselor, human resource executive, business manager, social service caseworker, researcher, practitioner, and/or residential treatment facility mental health director.

What are the Main Functions of a Mental Health Counselor?

As a mental health counselor, you will be responsible for observing, assessing, and interpreting/diagnosing clients and patients. You will also be required to develop treatment plans and provide counseling services.

Moreover, you will need to be able to document client and patient progress, and alter treatment plans to better fit your client’s/patient’s needs. Depending on your place of employment, you may also be required to conduct intakes (interviews) with clients and patients, conduct research studies on human thoughts, emotions and behaviors, administer psychological and job assessments, and teach and/or supervise counseling students at the undergraduate level. Note: The majority of licensed mental health counselors cannot prescribe psychotropic medications. Only New Mexico and Louisiana allow mental health counselors to prescribe medications to clients and patients.

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