Psychiatric Social Worker Career Guide [2024 Updated]

A patient facing a serious mental illness, addiction, or a neuropsychological disorder such as Alzheimer’s is often forced to struggle with various social and economic issues in addition to his or her mental problems.

Such a patient might not be able to perform his/her old job anymore. The patient might need help in remembering to take his medication or getting to his doctor’s appointment. Patient’s family might feel overwhelmed and lack the knowledge of how to help the patient. In these types of situations, psychiatric social workers, or clinical social workers, can be of great help.

What is a Psychiatric Social Worker?

Psychiatric social workers are mental health professionals that can assist patients and their family members in coping with both mental health issues and various economic or social problems caused by mental illness or addiction.

Although many mental health professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists can help patients with their psychiatric problems only very few have such extensive training in various communal services as psychiatric social workers do. Thus, these professionals make sure that a person with mental health issues can get all the help and support he or she needs in their road to recovery.

What Does a Psychiatric Social Worker Do?

The duties of a psychiatric social worker vary considerably depending on where they work. As a result, some of these professionals focus only on one type of task described here while others perform some or all of them.

Typically, the work of a psychiatric social worker starts with the assessment of a patient’s mental health status as well as his and her strengths and weaknesses. Normally, this requires team work between many different professionals, such as a psychiatrist, neurologist, speech therapist, nurses, neuropsychologist, and occupational therapist depending on the problems faced by the patient and his or her family.

Psychiatric social workers typically assess the mental health of their patients with assessment tests that might focus on how depressed the client is or how logical his thinking processes are. Based on these various assessment tests, a treatment plan is formed and each individual member of the team is assigned a different task to perform in order to reach the treatment goals. For example, a psychiatric social worker might be the one offering psychotherapy for the client.

Psychiatric social workers can also be responsible for making sure that the client is following a treatment plan and that he or she is meeting with the other members of the team such as doctors or speech therapist. Psychiatric social workers typically repeat the assessment tests regularly to see if the patient is making progress.

One important task that many psychiatric social workers do is to educate the patient, his or her family, and perhaps even the teachers and other relevant people in the patient’s life about the illness that the patient is facing. Psychiatric social workers may explain to all of these people how likely a patient is to improve or how rapidly his or her illness is likely to deteriorate.

Psychiatric social workers also have a duty to tell the family members what they can do to help the patient. For example, their task might be to inform the family how they can be of assistance in finding employment for their depressed relative or how they might help a bipolar person finish his/her high school.

It is also important to inform the patient and the family members about the welfare, disability benefits, and various therapeutic tools, such as wheelchairs, that are available for the patient and how they can apply for them.

Many psychiatric social workers work in hospital settings and one integral part of their job is to prepare for the discharge of patients. This means making follow-up appointments with doctors, speech therapists and other professionals that are part of the treatment group.

Some of these professionals might also need to be sent further information about the patient if they have not met him or her before. The patient and his or her family members must also be give a treatment plan.

It is often easy for professionals to focus on the patient alone but the patient’s family is also facing hardships and likely in need of assistance. A psychiatric social worker might lead a support group for the family members of a patient facing a certain illness, such as schizophrenia. They might also tell the family members about services that allow the caretaker a little time off from their many stressful duties with their sick relative.

Why Do We Need Psychiatric Social Workers?

Mental health problems are common and the most severe psychiatric illnesses can have devastating effects on a person’s life. For example, it is not uncommon for a person to lose her job, friends, or spouse as a result of mental health issues. These are the reasons psychiatric social workers are so important.

Psychiatric social workers are also needed to be there to support the recovery of a mentally ill patient by offering mental health services and other resources and social services that are needed in the recovery of a psychiatric patient.

What are the Requirements to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker?

Education Requirements

Individuals interested in becoming psychiatric social workers must get a master of social work, or a MSW. Before enrolling into a program, one should make sure it is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education as it is the only accrediting agency for social work education in the United States recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. A MSW consists of two years of full-time study and two years of internship.

It is possible to attain a MSW faster at certain institutions that award students with a bachelor’s of social work and advanced standing option. A MSW is typically intended to provide students with both a broad and deep training of social work. Most institutions do not require their students to have completed a bachelor of social work and will accept undergraduate degrees from multiple different liberal arts fields.

While completing their MSW, students typically have the ability to choose between different practice tracks. Examples of tracks include the clinical practice track which places heavy emphasis on working with clients and the macro practice track which focuses on community organizing, human services management, and political analysis and activism. What focuses are available to students depends largely on their institutions.

Those pursuing a MSW should expect to take some foundation classes at first. Courses on the history of social work practice, poverty and inequality, generalist social work practice, diversity, and social work for social justice are frequently demanded of students. In addition, students are also expected to complete micro, mezzo, and macro practice skills.

It is also possible to seek a Ph.D. or a doctorate of social work. These two titles have no real differences and very few institutions offer the option of pursuing social work past the master’s level. The curriculum of these programs often consist of classes on topics such as advanced social work methods, research methodology, statistics and the social sciences.

Doctorate degrees are highly individualized. However, a student looking to get either a Ph.D. or a doctorate of social work could reasonably expect to have to complete roughly two years of classes as well as to spend quite a lot of time on research projects, examinations, a research assistantship and dissertation work.

Licensing Requirements

As mention previously, all clinical social workers operating in the United States need to have completed a CSWE accredited program and hold licensing. How individual states handle licensing varies widely. For instance, becoming a master’s level licensed social worker in Texas requires a candidate to apply to The Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners during their last semester of education.

In addition, candidates must meet certain supervisory criteria based on hours worked and supervision plan. Finally, the candidates must complete the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam.

In contrast, interested psychiatric social workers in the state of Maine must apply to the Maine State Board of Social Worker Licensure. Similarly, these applicant need to complete the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam. The applicants must also provide several references and apply for the LMSW-CC, a clinical license given to master’s graduates accredited for clinical work.

For anyone interested in becoming a psychiatric social worker, investigating social work license requirements in their respective state is vital as the state boards often demand advanced notification, certain types of supervisory periods, specific testing, and so on.

Where Do Psychiatric Social Workers Work?

Psychiatric social workers are employed in both outpatient and inpatient settings but it is somewhat more common for them to work in hospital settings. Other common settings include nursing homes, state and local governments, substance abuse clinics, correctional facilities, and ambulatory health care services.

Some psychiatric social workers also have their own private practices although this is not very common.

What Type of Personality is Required to be a Psychiatric Social Worker?

  • Great listener – Asking the most appropriate questions is extremely important, but what is even more important is being someone who listens well. Someone who takes in what they are told, can process it effectively and use the information to adapt their questioning or thoughts about potential treatments.
  • Creative – The techniques and tools implemented for each patent will be different. Some clients can be particularly challenging and finding the right tools and techniques may require a lot of patience, but also a little creatively to adapt other strategies to make them an ideal fit.
  • Curious – A psychiatric social worker should be someone who takes a genuine interest in those around them. They should be interested in others and be inquisitive about the world around them, taking nothing for granted or based upon assumptions.
  • Caring – This aspect of personality is particularly important, they must have a genuine compassion and caring for those around them. This includes people who may be a little difficult or challenging to community with effectively, there should be a basic caring nature in every social psychiatric social worker.
  • Diligent – To successfully manage a caseload which can include referring patients into other services and gathering information for legal proceedings, a psychiatric social worker but be diligent by nature.

How Much Does a Psychiatric Social Worker Make?

Fortunately, psychiatric social workers can expect to make a comfortable living while working in a number of different jobs. For instance, the bureau of labor statistics estimates that mental health and substance abuse social workers earned an average salary of $60,130 in 2023.

Certain industries offer differing pay. For example, professionals working for individual and family services can expect to earn a projected annual salary $49,000 while those working in outpatient care centers can expect to receive an average of $57,160 yearly.

What is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatric Social Worker?

Although both psychologists and psychiatric social workers can typically offer therapy, there are some differences between these two educations. For example, psychologists usually have a longer educations. Those who have a Ph.D. or PsyD in clinical psychology typically have spent four to six years in graduate school followed by one or two years of supervised internship.

Psychiatric social workers, on the other hand, typically only have a master’s level education and have spent about two years in college. There are exceptions to these rules, however since there are those with only a masters level of education in psychology and those with a Ph.D in Social work.

Psychiatric social workers typically undergo two to three years of supervised internship regardless of whether they have a masters or Ph.D. level education. All psychiatric social workers concentrate on helping patients with mental health problems.

Psychologist, on the other hand, can specialize in several different fields, such as cognitive psychology, sports psychology, developmental psychology or industrial and organizational psychology, in addition to the mental health.

The clients and work settings of psychologist and psychiatric social workers can also differ. Whereas psychiatric social workers typically only offer therapy to clients with less severe mental problems, psychologist can also offer therapy to clients with more severe mental problems. Psychologist also work more commonly in private practice that psychiatric social workers do.

What Careers are Similar to a Psychiatric Social Worker?

A person interested in working as a psychiatric social worker might also enjoy working as a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse.


A person who wishes to work with mentally ill patients and does not mind completing a lengthy education might benefit from a career as a psychiatrist. These professionals are medical doctors that have specialized in mental health issues after their basic medical training.

Those wanting to enter this field need to complete an MD or do a degree program, finish their residency, get licensed by their respective state, and finally completing more additional education. The majority of states require an additional 30 credits to finish the program.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse (PMHN)

A specialty within nursing, psychiatric mental health nurses work with people, families, groups, and communities to assess their mental health needs. These professionals are tasked with creating nursing diagnoses and plans of care. PMHNs need to become registered nurses, earn masters or doctoral degrees in psychiatric-mental health nursing, and complete licensing exams after graduation.

What are the Opportunities for Advancement for a Psychiatric Social Worker?

Additional training, such as getting a Ph.D., and years of experience in the field can allow the psychiatric social worker to move from performing casework to the position of staff director, or facility manager. Psychiatric social workers working in such managerial positions typically supervise other social workers and give clients to his or her supervisees.

Related Reading

Further Reading

Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.