Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: July 2023
Clinical social workers make up the largest portion of mental health professionals, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). If you want to join this field of over 200,000 workers and practice clinical social work, consider becoming a mental health social worker. Find out what mental health social workers do, where they work, and how to pursue employment in this field with this helpful guide.
What is Mental Health Social Work?
Mental health social workers help improve the lives of people with mental health and substance misuse conditions. Their clients' locations and needs shape their work settings. They can work nearly anywhere, including in local government, outpatient facilities, and private practices.
Mental health social workers perform some of the same duties as generalist social workers, including managing case files and following up with clients to assess progress. However, they must become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) to perform psychotherapy, diagnose mental health conditions, and create clinical intervention plans.
Mental Health Social Worker Responsibilities
- Diagnose people with mental health conditions, according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)
- Provide individual, group, and family counseling
- Advocate for resources and policy changes in their community
- Create programs and intervention plans to help meet their clients' psychosocial needs
- Manage crises and assess situations for safety
Traits of a Mental Health Social Worker
- Cultural competency
- Communication and interpersonal skills
- Program development
- Problem-solving skills
Workplaces for Mental Health Social Workers
- Psychiatric hospitals
- Mental health clinics
- Private practice
- Local government
- Residential intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health, and substance misuse facilities
Featured Online Social Work Programs
How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker
You will spend 8-9 years training to become a mental health social worker. You need to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical exam and become an LCSW to practice as a mental health social worker. To become an LCSW, you'll spend:
- Four years earning a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) or a related field
- 2-3 years earning your master's degree in social work (MSW)
- About two years, or 3000 hours, completing your supervised experience
- About 100 hours completing your supervision
Some states specify that candidates must have up to 4,000 hours of supervised experience, while others have a second level of clinical licensure requiring a doctoral degree. Check with your state's social work licensing board to make sure you meet their requirements for the license you want or see our licensing guide to learn more about social work licensure by state.
Mental Health Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% job growth rate for mental health and substance misuse social workers — 6% higher than the average job growth for all occupations. This increased job growth may be due to the growing number of people seeking mental health and substance misuse treatment.
Mental health social workers make a median wage of $51,240 per year. The lowest-paid individuals make under $35,000 annually, while the highest-paid make over $97,000 per year, according to data from BLS in May 2022. You may increase your salary potential by earning a doctoral degree, learning new skills, gaining experience, or changing your location or practice setting.
Related: Compare social worker salaries in our comprehensive salary guide.
Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Health Social Work
What is the role of a mental health social worker?
Mental health social workers help people with mental health and substance misuse conditions improve their lives with resources and clinical interventions. They create intervention plans, develop programs, and examine, diagnose, and treat mental health and substance misuse conditions.
What skills do you need to be a mental health social worker?
To become a mental health social worker, you'll need skills in cultural competency, mental health assessment, psychotherapy, communication, and advocacy.
Where do mental health social workers work?
Mental health social workers work in many settings, including mental health clinics, private practice, psychiatric hospitals, outpatient care centers, and local government.
How much do mental health social workers make?
Mental health social workers make an average of $60,130 per year, according to BLS data from May 2022.