Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Mental health social workers provide crucial support to people in crisis situations. They perform advocacy work, counsel people seeking disaster relief, and assist individuals coping with illness or job loss.

Mental health social workers perform similar duties as clinical social workers. However, they only need to hold a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW). Those employed in clinical settings must hold a master's degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the top 10% of social workers earn $82,540 a year, while the median annual income approaches $46,650. Get a complete picture of the top-paying industries and states for behavioral health social workers in this guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does a mental health social worker make an hour?

    Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health social workers earn a mean hourly wage of $23.15, according to BLS data. However, earning potential varies by work setting. Outpatient care centers offer a mean hourly wage of $22.80, whereas local government agencies pay $27.62 an hour.

  • Where do mental health social workers work?

    Industries employing the most behavioral health social workers include outpatient care centers, individual and family services, mental health facilities, health practitioner offices, and local government agencies. As of May 2019, some 64,090 substance abuse and mental health social workers worked at outpatient care centers.

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

    Becoming a mental health social worker takes about four years, on average. However, the exact time spent earning a bachelor's degree in social work varies between individuals. Clinical social workers must spend an additional two years earning their master's degree before completing two years of supervised work experience in a clinical setting.

  • Is a mental health social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes. Mandated reporters in all 50 states include teachers, police officers, and mental health social workers. Under law, these individuals pledge to report any suspicions of abuse or violence to the proper authorities. Social workers directly help individuals and families in settings where they have an obligation to serve and protect.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Mental Health Social Worker

The opportunity to affect actual change in people's lives makes social work an appealing career. While all mental health social workers have the same goal, their job duties differ depending on their speciality and educational background. Many find jobs as therapists, case managers, licensed clinical social workers, and mental health specialists.

Mental health social workers who work at clinics uphold important responsibilities that impact people's lives. They provide crisis management, advocate on behalf of their clients, and implement treatment plans. While this work offers a great deal of personal fulfillment, it does not come without challenges.

As the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes, mental health social work programs at clinics and outpatient facilities often juggle large caseloads and limited resources. Working under these constraints can take a toll on social workers. Furthermore, social workers often take emotional stress home after helping clients navigate traumatic experiences.

Top Paying Industries for Mental Health Social Workers

Employers in many different industries rely on mental health social workers' expertise to manage clients. Each industry offers different responsibilities, benefits, drawbacks, and salaries. The highest-paying industries include insurance carriers, specialty hospitals, ambulatory health care services, and colleges. The top earning mental health social workers are employed at insurance carriers, where they make a mean wage of $68,650 a year.

Top Paying States for Mental Health Social Workers

As with any occupation, salary potential varies considerably by setting and geographic location. The top earning mental health social workers live in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, and New York. We can attribute these pay differences to cost of living, population density, and demand.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers make the most money in New Jersey, where they earn an annual mean wage of $83,050. The District of Columbia offers mental health and substance abuse social workers the second-highest pay, offering an annual mean wage of $66,080. New York, home to 11,540 mental health and substance abuse social workers, offers an annual mean age of $63,520.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Mental Health Social Workers

As a general rule of thumb for most occupations, workers in metropolitan areas earn more than those in rural areas. This also holds true for mental health social workers, who earn most in cities such as New York, Newark, and Jersey City.

Mental health social workers earned an annual mean salary of $68,300 — about an hourly mean wage of $32.84 in New York, Newark and Jersey City. On the West Coast, cities such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim offer a mean annual salary of $64,290.

Other top-paying cities/districts include Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Detroit. In Detroit, they make a mean hourly wage of about $24.84.

Salary and Job Growth for Mental Health Social Workers

As caseloads continue to grow at treatment centers, so does demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers. The field of social work is projected to experience an above-average employment growth rate of 13% through 2029.

Jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers should outpace all other employment projections for social workers. This increase, the BLS reports, comes as more prisoners report to drug treatment programs instead of jail.

As of 2019, industries employ some 123,200 mental health and substance abuse social workers across the nation. Employers are expected to add 20,700 mental health and substance abuse social work positions through 2029. The employment forecast looks particularly favorable for licensed clinical social workers.

Learn more about how a social work degree can prepare you for specific occupations.

How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Most mental health social workers start by completing a four-year bachelor's in social work degree at an accredited college. Candidates can secure entry-level positions as mental health social workers and social and human service assistants with only an undergraduate education.

However, a master's in social work (MSW) degree gives social workers access to advanced careers and higher salaries. Mental health social workers with a graduate degree can earn a NASW specialty certification and further increase their marketability.

To qualify for certification, mental health social workers must complete two years of supervised experience and hold a valid state license. While many duties for mental health social workers and clinical social workers overlap, their responsibilities and salaries differ. About 80.6% of MSW graduates have a five-year plan to become licensed clinical social workers.

MSW graduates hold jobs in a variety of settings. More than a quarter of MSW graduates surveyed in the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) workforce survey focus on providing mental health treatments.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Social workers pursuing careers in clinical settings must obtain licensure and a master's degree. A license allows social workers to administer therapy. Licensed social workers often specialize in gerontology, criminal justice, substance abuse and addiction treatment, child welfare, and palliative care.

While mental health social workers can still gain employment without a license, unlicensed social workers cannot provide therapy and face other work limitations. Both BSW and MSW graduates can earn specialty credentials through the NASW. Certain certifications such as the clinical credentials require a master's degree, whereas the social worker in gerontology certification only requires a bachelor's degree.