How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Overview

Mental health social workers work closely with a wide variety of medical and health professionals (i.e. psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, physicians, and nurses). These social workers help clients and patients improve their lives (i.e. manage mental health conditions, reduce stress, and resolve issues). Mental health social workers also help clients and patients manage behavioral problems, and cope with illnesses. These professionals typically seek employment as: researchers, college instructors, case managers, and/or legal advocates. In order to become a mental health social worker, you will need to earn bachelor’s degree (BSW) in social work/sociology. Although only a bachelor’s degree is required to enter the field of mental health social work, most employers prefer employees, who have earned a master’s degree in the field.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Mental health social perform the following job functions:

  • Providing services to clients and patients with mental illnesses and psychological disorders.
  • Assessing the needs, strengths, weaknesses, situations, and support systems of clients and patients, in an effort to develop short-term and long-term goals.
  • Developing treatment plans designed to improve the mental health and well-being of clients and patients.
  • Helping clients and patients adjust to life changes (i.e. illnesses, divorces, death, loss, debt, and/or unemployment).
  • Researching and referring clients to resources (i.e. child care, government housing, medical services/healthcare, and food stamps).
  • Helping clients and patients sign up for government assistance (i.e. Medicare)
  • Responding to crisis situations like child abuse.
  • Tracking the progress of clients and patients.
  • Evaluating mental health services to ensure that they are still effective.

Where Does a Mental Health Social Worker Work?

Mental health social workers typically work in the following environments:

  • Skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes)
  • Mental health clinics
  • Substance abuse clinics
  • Private practices (counseling practices)
  • Hospitals & clinics
  • Schools
  • Social services agencies
  • Military bases
  • Government and state agencies
  • Colleges and universities
  • Correctional facilities (jails and prisons)
  • Client/patient residences

What are the Requirements to Become a Mental Health Social Worker?

Education

A bachelor’s degree (BSW) in social work is required for entry-level mental health social work positions. However, some employers (i.e. social service agencies) may hire employees, who have a bachelor’s degree in criminal science or psychology. An undergraduate social work/sociology program prepares you for a career as a mental health case manager (case worker) or mental health technician (assistant). The goal of this type of social work/sociology program is to teach you how to counsel or provide services to diverse populations. You also learn about human thought processes and behaviors, and social welfare policies.

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work, you might be required to complete a supervised mental health internship (clinical practice). As mentioned previously, in most cases, only a bachelor’s degree in social work/sociology is required to become a mental health social worker, but in some cases, employers may prefer a master’s degree (MSW) in social work/sociology. Instances, in which a master’s degree may be preferred include: positions at schools or healthcare/medical facilities.

For example, a mental health social worker may need a master’s degree (MSW) in social work/sociology, plus 2 to 3 years of post-degree, supervised clinical social work experience, if he or she wants to work with children at a school, or if he or she wants to have a private practice. You will need to complete 4 years of college (150 to 200 semester hours) to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work. Courses at the undergraduate level include: Introduction to Social Work, Social Service Systems, Human Diversity, Crisis Interventions, Social Work Practices, and Welfare Policies.

A master’s degree in social work/sociology generally takes 2.5 years (30 semester hours/40 classes and 900 clinical internship hours in a mental health field) to complete, although some graduate social work programs allow you to earn a master’s degree in 12 months. A graduate social work program prepares you to administer clinical assessments, provide supervision to entry-level mental health social workers, and provide mental health services to clients and patients. Courses required at the master’s level include: Social Welfare Policy and Services, Information Literacy Program, Dynamics of Racism and Oppression, Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Assessment and Diagnosis, Family Approaches in Clinical Social Work, and Alcohol, Drugs & Social Work Practice.

Training

Additional training in the field may help you prepare for a career in the mental health social work field. These social workers work with diverse populations, so if possible become active within your community. In fact, volunteering at non-profit, mental health facilities or social service agencies can help you become accustomed to interacting with a variety of people. You can also volunteer your services to those, who cannot afford to pay for social work or counseling services. If you are unsure where to look for a volunteer experience, ask your social work professors, check the websites of mental health organizations, newspapers volunteer sections, and/or college career sites. Also, contact the human resource departments: at local hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies, and ask the contact person about volunteer experiences.

Licensing Requirements

In order to provide services to clients and patients, you will need to acquire a license and/or certification. Research your state’s requirements to determine if a license and/or certification is required to practice. Almost all states require mental health social workers to be licensed, however some government and state agencies allow these social workers to work at their facilities, without a license or certification. A master’s degree in social work/sociology, along with 2 years of clinical mental health experience, following graduation is required to be licensed as a Licensed Social Worker (LSC). Once you have completed all of the licensure/certification requirements, you will be required to pass a licensure/certification exam.

Related: How to Become a Medical Social Worker

What Skills and Qualities are Needed for a Mental Health Social Worker?

  • Compassion: Mental health social workers often work with people, who are in the midst of stressful, difficult and challenging situations. You will need a high level of compassion and empathy, if you want your clients and patients to trust you.
  • Social Skills: Mental health social workers must be able to work with a variety of people. You will need social /people skills to develop and nurture positive relationships with clients, patients, and colleagues.
  • Listening Skills: To be a successful mental health social worker, you will need to have good listening skills. Clients and patients need to feel comfortable sharing their innermost fears, and problems with you, so you will need to actively listen to what they are saying, in order to help them resolve their issues.
  • Organizational Skills: You will need good organizational skills because this career typically consists of managing multiple clients and patients, helping these individuals with paperwork (intake forms), and documenting treatments and client progress.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: You will need strong problem-solving skills, if you want to be a successful mental health social worker. These skills are important for helping clients and patients find solutions to their problems.
  • Time-Management Skills: As a mental health social worker, you will provide services to diverse populations. And, as a result you will need to effectively manage your time, so that you can provide quality care to all of your clients and patients.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Mental Health Social Workers?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), you can expect to make approximately $40,000, per year, on average, as a mental health social worker. If you fall in the lower 10%, you can expect to make approximately $28,000, but if you fall in the upper 10%, you can expect to make approximately $73,000 or more, per year, on average (bls.gov). Mental health social work positions are expected to increase by 18% the year 2022. This increase will stem from an aging population.

In other words, as people age, they will require more mental health services, which is where mental health social workers will come into play. Moreover, as more and more people end up in jail and prison, and/or develop addictions, the need for mental health social workers will increase. The career outlook for this career field is positive. As a mental health social worker, you will more than likely be required to work weekends, evenings, holidays, and overtime. You may also be required to visit clients at their homes, and/or attend frequent court sessions (bls.gov).

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