Learn What Mental Health Social Workers Do and How to Become One

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
  • Advocacy
  • 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.

Become a School Social Worker

School systems employ social workers to help K-12 students with academic, emotional, and behavioral issues and challenges. School social workers also advise families and teachers on how they can assist their school-age children and adolescents at home and in the classroom.

School social workers need at least a bachelor of social work (BSW). Some states require teaching experience or a credential, while others may require specific supervised field experience in school social work.

Child, family, and school social workers earn a median annual salary of $47,390. This guide elaborates on the projected job market, roles and responsibilities, and educational and licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a school social work job worth it?

    The pay may be on the low side and the work challenging, but a career in school social work can also be rewarding, especially for those who enjoy helping children and teens succeed. A PayScale survey found that 4.1 out of 5 school social workers reported high satisfaction with their jobs.

  • Where do school social workers work?

    According to a 2018 workplace survey conducted by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 8% of social workers employed by educational institutions worked at pre-K or elementary schools and 5.8% at secondary schools. The remainder found jobs at residential schools (1.2%) and college and university counseling/health centers (0.8%).

  • How long does it take to become a school social worker?

    State requirements for becoming a social worker vary widely. Some states, such as California, require a BSW and school counseling credential to practice as a school social worker. Others, including Massachusetts and New York, require a master of social work (MSW). Earning a BSW typically takes four years, and most MSW programs span two years.

  • Is a school social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes, school social workers must report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. Those who fail to do so may face civil and/or criminal penalties. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), more than half of all child abuse reports come from professionals like school social workers.

Roles and Responsibilities of a School Social Worker

School social workers conduct student assessments and social histories, develop treatment plans, provide therapy and crisis management services, advocate for students, and educate school staff and families. Those who provide therapeutic services must typically obtain an MSW and a state clinical social workers' license.

An NASW occupational profile discusses benefits and challenges of the job. Benefits include meaningful improvement in students' lives, daily variation, and collaboration with teachers, staff, and patients. Challenges involve high caseloads, travel time if assigned to more than one school, and limited resources, privacy, and supervision.

Demand for school-based mental health services has risen due to increased recognition of the ways children's mental health impacts functioning and the importance of early intervention and prevention. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that almost two-thirds of students treated for mental health issues receive their treatments at school.

Top Paying Industries for School Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists junior colleges and K-12 schools as the top-paying industries for school social workers. Those employed at junior colleges earn an annual mean wage of $64,110, while elementary and secondary school social workers bring in $63,810. Of the educational institutions listed, K-12 schools employ the highest number of social workers (45,480), which translates to 53% of industry employment for child, family, and school social workers.

Top Paying States for School Social Workers

Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Connecticut top the BLS's list of highest-paying states, with annual mean salaries of $71,590, $68,830, and $68,360, respectively. Rhode Island ($63,310) and Maryland ($61,910) follow.

The BLS ranking of highest employing states places California in the top position with 32,630 child, family, and school social workers earning a mean wage of $59,990 per year; New York second with 29,880 making $60,380; and Pennsylvania third with 21,180 collecting $44,870. Rounding out the top five are Texas, with 21,120 child, family, and school social workers making $49,060, and Illinois, with 14,720 earning $55,390.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for School Social Workers

Connecticut houses three of the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk tops the list at $74,130, the Hartford area third at $70,610, and Danbury seventh at $67,400. Second place goes to Trenton, New Jersey, at $70,890, and fourth place to Bismarck, North Dakota, at $68,200.

California is represented with Salinas at fifth place with an annual mean wage of $68,040, Merced at sixth place with $67,410, and Hanford-Corcoran at ninth place with $67,410. Completing the top 10 are the Washington, D.C. area at eighth place with $67,370 and Rochester, Minnesota, at tenth place with $66,070.

The highest employment levels exist in the big cities and are led by New York (24,950; $63,590), Los Angeles (15,160; $63,810), and Chicago (10,600; $55,660).

Salary and Job Growth for School Social Workers

Child, family, and school social workers should see a 12% projected job growth from 2019-29, which pencils out to an estimated 40,100 openings. The BLS notes that the demand for school social workers should correspond to increased student enrollment; however, budget constraints at all levels — federal, state, and local — may limit the actual number of opportunities.

Job prospects for clinical social workers, who can provide their students with school-based therapy and treatment, should be stronger than those for nonclinical school social workers. For those interested in a broader approach, becoming a social work generalist may open doors to other areas of social and human services.

How to Become a School Social Worker

Prospective school social workers can earn a BSW and practice nonclinical and generalist social work but need an MSW to become a clinical social worker and provide direct therapeutic services and treatment. In addition, the NASW requires an MSW for certification (discussed in more detail below).

As the CSWE notes, obtaining an MSW has increasingly become the recommended minimum degree for school social workers. In its workforce study, CSWE reports that most BSW-holders plan to continue their education and earn an MSW. Moreover, while 59% of professionals with a BSW find employment after graduation, less than half of that 59% work as social workers.

The recommended steps to becoming a school social worker with strong employment prospects include earning a bachelor's degree, researching your state's requirements for licensure, earning an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, and logging supervised field experience hours, which vary by state, in a school setting.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

The CSWE advises all school social workers — clinical or not — to obtain a state license and certification. Eligibility requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, supervised field experience, and a passing score on the state-required licensure examination.

The NASW offers credentialing as a certified school social work specialist, which signifies expertise, knowledge, and skill and attainment of NASW standards. Applicants must hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program; demonstrate completion of two years of paid, supervised postgraduate social work in a school setting; possess a state license or certification; and show adherence to NASW ethics and continuing education requirements.

Social Work Degree Programs in South Dakota

Don't underestimate our nation's fifth least populated state because there are five top-notch social work degrees in South Dakota that maintain academic excellence with CSWE accreditation.

Although its best known for its vast expanses of land in the Great Plains, South Dakota actually provides several highly ranked educational opportunities in the Midwest for aspiring social workers looking to take off in this economy-proof career. Social work majors in South Dakota also receive the unique chance to practice in rural areas and with diverse populations, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Dakota, Kiowa, Oglala, Sioux, and other Native American tribes living here.

The following is a guide to the five social work degree programs accredited throughout South Dakota.

Oglala Lakota College

Social Work Department

Initially chartered by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council in 1971, Oglala Lakota College is a fully accredited independent tribal institution that serves around 1,400 students from its main campus in Kyle as well as the satellite instructional centers in Rapid City and on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. As a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), OLC has stepped beyond its status as a community college to now offer bachelor's programs and one master's degree centered. The Social Work Department aims to develop competent licensed social workers who can lead tribal, state, and federal organizations for boosting the well-being of Lakota people.

Bachelors in Social Work (BSW)

Available with emphasis areas in Liberal Arts or Chemical Dependency Counseling, the Bachelors in Social Work (BSW) program at OLC is focused on educating undergraduate students on essential components of social change processes to build a successful career in fairly distributing scarce economic and social resources in South Dakota. The program seeks to prepare students for beginning professional social work practice to specifically make life better for Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. As an upper-division generalist social work program, students enter in their junior year and spend two semesters clocking 400 hours of practicum within the field.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


3 Mile Creek Road
Kyle, SD 57752
(605) 393-7374
[email protected]
Program Website

Presentation College

Social Work Department

As a small comprehensive four-year private Roman Catholic liberal arts institution, Presentation College is currently serving a close-knit community of around 780 students on a main 100-acre rural campus in the town of Aberdeen near the Minnesota border. Sponsored by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), the college welcomes learners of all faiths to find personal and professional growth in more than 25 associate's, bachelor's, and certificate programs. From a unique Catholic worldview, the Social Work Department is focused on the values of service, social justice, dignity, and integrity to produce generalist social workers who can effectively address social problems.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Fully accredited by the CSWE, the Bachelor of Science in Social Work program at Presentation is available at the main Aberdeen, Lakota, and Sioux Falls campuses to provide a hands-on education that prepares students for succeeding in a variety of social work settings. With a personalized curriculum that can be tailored to fit each students' goals, the program offers an excellent opportunity to find entry-level positions in public health, human services, geriatrics, substance abuse, mental health, family services, child welfare, and more. In the 120-credit degree plan, social work majors will be expected to complete a minimum of 400 practicum hours in an approved field site for developing essential knowledge, skills, values, and ethics.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1500 North Main Street
Aberdeen, SD 57401
(605) 271-7694
[email protected]
Program Website

University of Sioux Falls

Department of Social Work

Situated on a beautiful 58-acre urban campus in the state's largest city along the banks of the Big Sioux River, the University of Sioux Falls is a comprehensive four-year private Christian liberal arts institution educating more than 1,400 students annually. With a mission to develop mature Christian persons for serving God and humankind through the character of Christ, USF is currently ranked as the 38th best regional college in the Midwest by the U.S. News and World Report. The Department of Social Work has received CSWE accreditation for delivering valuable social work education that explores all facets of generalist practice with hands-on service learning opportunities.

B.A. in Social Work

Designed as preparation for advanced studies in graduate school or as a direct pathway towards the workplace, the B.A. in Social Work program at USF includes a wide range of thought-provoking classes to challenge undergraduate students to engage in social problems surrounding them. From an entry-level generalist approach, students build upon their liberal arts core with 56 credit hours of major social work coursework. In the final year, students also complete a block field placement to complete 450 or more hours of field practicum in one semester. Graduates will be well-equipped for working in mental health, elderly care, medicine, corrections, family services, case management, human resources, ministry, and more.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1101 West 22nd Street
Sioux Falls, SD 57105
(605) 331-6600
[email protected]
Program Website

University of South Dakota

Department of Social Work

Initially established within the Dakota Territory in 1862, the University of South Dakota is a major comprehensive public research institution with over 10,200 students on its 276-acre rural campus in the small college town of Vermillion within just 39 miles northwest of Sioux City, Iowa. Named a "Best Value" in Forbes magazine, USD is currently ranked as the 168th best national university, 93rd top public school, and 55th top college for veterans in America by the U.S. News and World Report. Within the School of Health Sciences, the Department of Social Work is accredited by the CSWE to serve students with a passion for social justice and a desire to improve the quality of people's lives.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Within a four-year degree plan of 120 total credits, the Bachelor of Science in Social Work at USD is focused on combining classroom instruction with field education to develop the evidence-based knowledge, values, and skills students will need as entry-level generalist social work professionals. Founded with an emphasis on diversity, the program seeks to develop versatile social workers who can effectively address emerging social issues with diverse populations. In addition to field practicum, students can also build professional connections by participating in the Social Work Student Club, obtaining membership with the NASW, and striving for acceptance into the Sigma Theta Phi Alpha Honor Society.

Master of Science in Social Work

Offered in a full-time or part-time format, the Master of Science in Social Work program has the goal of preparing graduate students as advanced social work professionals to provide high-quality clinical, therapeutic, or social services to South Dakota's diverse communities. Most students are admitted into the regular 60-credit non-thesis program, but those with a CSWE-accredited bachelor's degree in social work can apply for the 36-credit advanced standing program for an accelerated path. Regardless of the track chosen, graduate social work majors will take courses in research methods, program evaluation, social justice, social policy, community health, mental health assessment, and organizational practice before their 500 clock hours of advanced field education.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1400 West 22nd Street
Vermillion, SD 57105
(605) 677-5401
[email protected]
Program Website

Earning a social work degree in the "Mount Rushmore State" is beneficial for anyone hoping to start a rewarding career in helping individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations improve. Once you find the right school, choose fitting field practicum sites, and receive your degree, you'll have the unparalleled opportunity to make a real difference in our world's social functioning. You'll certainly find favorable job prospects also because employment for social workers is expected to skyrocket by 19 percent before 2022, especially in the healthcare and mental health fields. Turn your hobby in community service and passion for helping others into an in-demand career by attending one of these accredited social work degrees in South Dakota.

See also: Social Work Degree Programs in North Dakota

What Does It Mean to be a Social Work Generalist?

Social work generalist practice as outlined by the Council on Social Work Education is defined as follows. Generalist practice introduces students to basic concepts in social work, which include promoting human well-being and applying preventative and intervention methods to social problems at individual, group, and community levels while following ethical principles and critical thinking.

While this definition outlines well what social workers do, what type of jobs does a bachelor's in social work prepare you for? That is, what skills does the degree give you and how can they be applied to a real job opportunity post-graduation?

Social work education prepares students to enter the workforce with three perspectives which, when combined with personal interest, can be tailored to fit nearly any professional goals you might have.

Perspective 1: A Client's Right to Self-Determination

The first of the three perspectives is a client's right to self-determination. A client has the right to determine what's best for themselves within reason. For instance, if you like working with the elderly, you might be hired as a social service manager at a nursing home, where your duties may include working with a client to establish what services are needed (i.e. assistance with bathing), whereas a client may not be deemed legally fit to develop her own plan.

Perspective 2: Strengths and the Holistic Perspective

Second is a strengths perspective. That is, looking at a person holistically in order to determine what skills, networks, or resources a person might have in order to face a challenge. For instance, you might be hired by the county to work as an economic support specialist; you might be responsible for assisting clients to get enrolled in the Foodshare program. But let's say you are working with a family of six. While the Foodshare might meet part of their needs, some need is going unmet. Having a strengths perspective would be a useful tool to help you address how to meet the the remaining unmet need. (Perhaps a local church with a food pantry could assist in meeting their food needs).

Perspective 3: Eclectic or Integrative Perspective

The third perspective a social work education provides is the eclectic perspective. What this means is that social work integrates information from a variety of disciplines in order to make evidence-based decisions. Perhaps you are hired as a hospital social worker in an oncology department, where not only a need of social systems is important, but it must be integrated with knowledge of research on cancer patient treatment outcomes.


Being a good social worker means assisting clients in a variety of ways, utilizing these perspectives to make informed decisions. Being a social work generalist prepares you to enter nearly any profession within the social and human service field, depending on your own interests, by equipping you with three perspectives: client's right to self-determination, a strengths perspective, and an eclectic perspective. Therefore, utilizing these perspectives will help you be ready to enter nearly any social or human services role.

About the Author

Sean Inderbitzen graduated from Cairn University with a Bachelor's in Social Work. Certified in the state of Wisconsin to practice Social Work, he is actively involved in philanthropy for non-profits in north-western Wisconsin, working with organizations that provide services in the fields of mental health in both children and adults. You can follow on Google+.