Mental Health Counselor vs. Social Worker

From direct psychotherapy to crisis intervention to advocating for environmental change, mental health careers offer a variety of rewarding paths to help those in need. Today, there are over 649,300 social workers and over 168,200 mental health counselors, with both jobs expected to grow at faster rates than average.

Understanding the similarities and differences between mental health counseling and social work is critical for prospective students making the best-informed decision for their career path.


Education Requirements

To become a mental health counselor, professionals must obtain an advanced graduate degree (Master or Doctoral) in mental health counseling or a related equivalent, such as Marriage and Family Therapy.

While many professionals have college undergraduate degrees in psychology, this background is not always required. In fact, becoming a clinician later in life or as a second career has become increasingly more common, with studies highlighting that 22% of mental health counseling doctoral students were between ages 35 and 44, and 12% were aged 45 to 59.

Students should consider school accreditations, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) in their application processes, as these may increase employment opportunities after graduation.

All mental health counseling students must also engage in professional practice, which includes extensive practicum and internship experience under licensed supervision. These experiences provide students with the opportunity to apply theory and begin initial stages of performing therapy and clinical services.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) are professionals with graduate degrees. While many individuals have undergraduate degrees in social work or a related major, it is not a requirement for entering a graduate program.

Working professionals with an undergraduate degree in social work (BSW) can provide entry-level human service assistance (i.e: as caseworkers or mental health assistants). This can provide a valuable foundation for gaining practical experience and learning about the field. With that said, however, they cannot provide direct clinical services. 

An LCSW must attend an approved master’s of social work (MSW) program, complete all required coursework and necessary supervised clinical hours (typically between 2-3 years), and successfully pass all state board exams.

Each state  has its own standards, curriculum, and criteria for licensure. Students should consider school accreditations, such as the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in their application processes, as these may increase employment opportunities after graduation.


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Licensure or Certification

Mental health counselor licensure varies by state. However, the typical pathway towards licensure includes:

  • Graduating with a Master’s or Doctoral degree in mental health counseling
  • Completing necessary practicum and internship hours (ranging from 2000-4000 hours)
  • Providing accurate documentation of meeting all requirements
  • Passing required state-board exams
  • Maintaining active status through continuing education units

Licensure requirements for social workers also vary by state. Typical pathways towards licensure includes:

  • Graduating with an advanced degree from an MSW program
  • Completing all necessary supervised fieldwork and practicum hours (1500-4000 hours)
  • Providing accurate documentation of meeting all requirements
  • Successfully passing all state-board examinations
  • Maintaining active status through continuing education units

Role and Approaches to Mental Health

Mental health counselors provide clinical support and guidance for people challenged with mental and emotional disorders, interpersonal dynamics and other concerns that result from stressors. Through active listening and open discussion, they work with clients to facilitate positive change within their lives.

Typical job duties include:

  • Assessing, diagnosing and coordinating appropriate care for mental health disorders
  • Creating effective treatment plans to facilitate client growth
  • Encouraging open sharing about thoughts and emotions
  • Exploring difficult experiences, such as trauma, relationship dissatisfaction, occupational stress or family conflict
  • Assisting clients to develop positive coping strategies for life stressors

Social workers provide assistance to individuals, families and communities to increase their social functioning and maintain a sense of safety. These professionals employ their advanced understanding of human development to facilitate both micro-level and macro-level changes.

Typical job duties include:

  • Identifying people and communities in need of support and services
  • Assessing, connecting and providing psychotherapy for clients
  • Collaborating with clients to make positive changes in their daily living
  • Advocating for client and community needs
  • Researching, referring and assisting clients with community support resources
  • Evaluating outside services to determine efficacy

Theoretical Approaches

Counseling theories provide a framework for understanding and intervening as a mental health counselor. Essentially, they serve as a “roadmap” for interpreting issues and subsequently working with clients through them. Mental health counselors utilize a variety of interventions and techniques to help their clients. Common theories include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral
  • Psychodynamic
  • Solution-Focused
  • Family Systems
  • Narrative
  • Humanistic-Existential

Social work theories provide a framework for understanding and intervening as a social worker. Essentially, they serve as a “roadmap” for interpreting issues and subsequently working through them. Social workers utilize a variety of interventions and techniques to help their clients. Common theories include:

  • Systems Theory
  • Cognitive Behavioral
  • Psychodynamic
  • Psychosocial Developmental
  • Transpersonal
  • Social Exchange
  • Social Constructionism

Different Settings of Practice

Mental health counselors can be found providing services in:

  • Community mental health clinics
  • Public and private schools and universities
  • Military services
  • Not-for-profit organizations
  • Government services
  • Private practice
  • Prisons
  • Senior centers
  • Medical offices

Social workers are commonly employed and serve populations in:

  • Community mental health clinics
  • Public and private schools and universities
  • Military services
  • Not-for-profit organizations
  • Government services
  • Private practice
  • Prisons
  • Senior centers
  • Medical offices

What is the difference between a mental health counselor and a social worker?

Undoubtedly, the mental health counselor and social worker share similar job descriptions. Both professions provide a variety of psychotherapy and clinical services. Both require advanced education and supervised practicum/internship experience.

On average, mental health counselors and social workers make comparable salaries ($44,170 and $46,890 respectively). Furthermore, these two mental health professions have higher-than-average expected job growth over the next decade (19% for mental health counselors and 12% for social workers).

With that said, it is critical to understand the major differences between the two in order to make the best decision for your future career path.

In a nutshell, mental health counselors focus on helping people understand their emotions, develop positive coping strategies and adapt to their environments. Counselor work is centered on providing support, compassion and change within the therapy environment. They focus less on changing the client’s external environment and focus more on increasing adaptation of the situation and/or providing referrals for community services when appropriate.

Social workers, in addition to therapy emotional support, do focus on ways to change the environment to best adapt to their clients. Rather than refer to other services, they often engage in wraparound advocacy, utilizing community resources and providing comprehensive case management. In addition to improving client emotional status, they seek to improve overall life functioning through providing a wide range of outside social supports.