What are the Differences Between a Mental Health Counselor and Social Worker?

Last Updated: June 29, 2024

Working in a helping profession can be a very rewarding experience. On the one hand, you can use your skills and expertise to help other people work through difficult emotional or mental health issues. On the other hand, the assistance you provide to your clients has benefits well beyond that person – it can also benefit their spouse, children, extended family, and friends.

But many job titles in the helping professions can be confusing. This is primarily because many of the duties of counselors, social workers, and other mental health-related professions have a lot of overlap. However, there are significant differences that make each helping profession its own unique endeavor.

In this guide, we will explore the basics of mental health counseling and social work to help you understand which career path is right for you.

What are the Differences Between a Mental Health Counselor and a Social Worker?

Mental Health Counselor Vs. Social Worker

Mental health counselors specialize in therapy for psychological issues, using counseling to treat emotional and mental disorders. Social Workers focus on clients’ overall well-being, providing support, resources, and advocacy across social and environmental challenges.

Mental health counselors and social workers both serve an important function in society by providing necessary services that enhance people’s lives. But the ways they go about doing this differ. One might say that mental health counselors take a narrower focus and primarily address mental health concerns, while social workers take a more global approach to helping people with numerous aspects of their lives.

Below is a detailed explanation of some of the primary differences between these two careers in more detail.

Differences in Job Duties

To highlight the differences between a mental health counselor and a social worker, let’s use an example of a person with a social anxiety disorder as an example.

A mental health counselor would primarily work with someone with a social anxiety disorder to explore the genesis of the issue – what caused the anxiety and why. They would also provide direct clinical care to the client. For example, someone with a disorder like this would work with a mental health counselor to learn strategies for helping manage their anxiety.

A social worker, on the other hand, might meet with someone with an anxiety disorder to explore how the disorder affects their life on a day-to-day basis. For instance, perhaps the client’s social anxiety has caused them to experience job loss and financial stress. A social worker might provide resources for the client to get career counseling, financial planning advice, and other practical services that help address the life issues arising from the client’s anxiety.

In other words, where a mental health counselor focuses almost entirely on the clinical treatment of anxiety, a social worker takes a broader approach to provide a wide range of services and referrals to other professionals. In some cases, a social worker might also provide clinical treatment, but if they do, it is often done in the context of a much more robust suite of services.

As another example, let’s assume a young man with an alcohol use disorder seeks the assistance of a mental health counselor. In this context, the counselor would work with the young man to determine the causes of his disorder as well as identify the triggers that lead to drinking. Additionally, a mental health counselor is likely to do the following:

  • Develop a thorough treatment plan with short-term and long-term goals for addressing the client’s alcohol use disorder.
  • Conduct periodic assessments to gauge the client’s progress.
  • Provide specific treatment for alcohol use disorder, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
  • Provide emotional support in a clinical environment.
  • Arrange supplementary treatment options, like connecting the client to a local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter.
  • Work with other mental health professionals to provide holistic treatment.

Now let’s assume the same young man with alcohol use disorder seeks help from a social worker. As noted earlier, a social worker might offer therapy services similar to those a mental health counselor provides. However, it’s often more likely that the social worker provides external resources that can provide assistance to the client. For example, a social worker might provide the client with a list of mental health counselors that can provide long-term clinical services.

Let’s also assume that the young man’s alcohol use is severe enough that he’s experiencing homelessness and unemployment. That being the case, a social worker would connect the young man to service providers such as homeless shelters, treatment centers, and job assistance programs that can help him address these issues. All of this would be done alongside the clinical treatment provided by a mental health counselor.

The differences between mental health counselors and social workers go beyond the scope of their work, though. Where they work and the education that’s required to work in these fields is different, too.

Differences in Work Environment

Mental health counselors work in a variety of settings, from community mental health centers to residential treatment centers to medical hospitals. Many clinical mental health counselors choose to work in private practice, too, because of the greater freedom to choose the type of work they do and the increased salary potential.

Wherever a mental health counselor works, though, they typically do so in an office setting that includes a private space to meet with clients individually or with couples, families, or small groups. This is true of counselors who work independently in private practice as well as those who work for a mental health agency or organization. An exception to this rule might be if a counselor moves on from working directly with clients and takes on a supervisory role.

For example, assume you are a seasoned counselor with 20 years of experience working with clients in a non-profit community mental health center. At that point, you might take a position as the center’s director, a job that would focus more on the day-to-day operation and management of the clinic as opposed to working with clients.

Another exception to this rule would be if you work in academics. Again, doing so requires a long history of working with clients upon which you can draw to help teach the next generation of mental health counselors. However, many counselors who teach at the collegiate level often still see clients, even if it’s just a few.

The work environment for social workers is quite similar. Social workers are commonly employed by social services agencies, where they work in an office environment alongside other social workers and support personnel. As an entry-level or mid-career social worker employed by an agency like the Department of Family Services, you’re likely to have your own office where you meet with clients to discuss goals and resources that help them move their lives forward in a positive direction.

Like counselors, though, supervisory and academic positions are available for more experienced social workers, especially those who work for state social services agencies, community health service centers, and other non-profit agencies.

Social workers might also work for themselves in private practice. For example, if you are a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you can provide clinical therapeutic treatments to clients for a wide range of issues, not unlike a mental health counselor. Both of these professions also offer employment opportunities in primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and correctional environments.

Differences in Education

Mental health counselors must have at least a graduate degree in counseling. Graduate-level counseling programs vary widely in terms of their length, ranging from as few as 30 credits to more than 60 credits. However, shorter programs are not preparatory for licensure. If you wish to work in a therapeutic role with clients, you will need to complete a program that includes coursework and field experiences. These programs often require about three years of full-time studies to complete.

Master’s-level counseling programs usually do not have undergraduate degree requirements, meaning, you can apply to a counseling graduate program without having a related bachelor’s degree, though it helps. If, for example, you have a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, you will likely need to complete some graduate-level psychology, counseling, or statistics courses as prerequisites for full admission.

A graduate degree is not enough to work as a counselor, though. You must also be licensed by the state in which you intend to practice. Regulations regarding licensure are controlled at the state level and can vary significantly. However, requirements for licensure often include graduating from an approved and accredited program, completing sufficient supervised hours, and passing a licensure exam.

Where counselors must have at least a master’s degree, many careers in social work only require a Bachelor of Social Work degree. A good example of this is working as a case manager for a social services agency, like Child and Family Services. As an entry-level position, the pay isn’t as good as master’s or doctoral-level positions, but the experience is invaluable in helping you further develop your skills.

To advance your social work career, you will need a Master of Social Work degree. This is a significant difference from the educational options for counselors – where social workers must have an MSW or higher, counselors can choose from many different graduate-level counseling degree options.

An MSW is a faster graduate degree to obtain than a counseling degree. If you already have a BSW, you might be able to complete an MSW in about one year. Without a BSW, you will likely need two or more years to do so. The added time and effort is worth it though – with a master’s degree, you can pursue licensure and become an LCSW, which qualifies you to provide therapeutic services to your clients.

Can a Mental Health Counselor Diagnose Personality Disorders?

Yes, mental health counselors are trained in graduate school to diagnose all mental health issues, including personality disorders, using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition Text Revision (DSM-5-TR).

Is Being a Mental Health Counselor Stressful?

Mental health counseling can be an extremely stressful career, given the nature of the work. You will be privy to your clients’ deepest secrets, witness their struggles, and share in their failures along the way.

In some settings, counselors have a heavy client load and must work nights, weekends, and holidays while also being on call for emergencies. All of this can contribute to a high-stress level, particularly if you don’t have a good work-life balance.

How Does Counseling Differ From Other Helping Professions?

As noted earlier, counseling has a narrower focus than social work. But counseling differs from other helping professions, too. For example, counselors and psychologists differ because counselors tend to work with clients on issues like depression, anxiety, and family troubles. Psychologists, meanwhile, tend to work with clients who are severely mentally disturbed, such as those with schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.

Counselors are different from psychiatrists as well – where counselors are trained via graduate or doctoral-level counseling programs, psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialty training in providing mental health services. Counselors are also different from marriage and family therapists – where counselors might see clients of all ages and relationship statuses, marriage and family therapists usually work with couples and families and provide individual therapy to each member within the couple or family.

Of course, despite these differences, these professions all share the common goal of helping others work through difficult times and achieve a higher level of self-actualization.

Which is Better? Mental Health Counselor or Social Worker?

Mental health counselors and social workers both have important functions, and these functions can be better depending on the situation. If you need one-on-one mental health treatment for a disorder, a counselor is often the better choice. But, if you need practical assistance with meeting daily goals, a social worker is usually better equipped to provide assistance.

If you are struggling to decide between these fields as a potential career, the same differences should be considered. If you are drawn to the idea of providing mental health therapy to clients, becoming a counselor is usually the better of the two. But, if you want to provide more holistic services to your clients – which may or may not include mental health therapy – you might give greater consideration to becoming a social worker.

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