Mental Health Social Worker Career Overview: Salary, Job Description & More

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A mental health social worker counsels a young girl and her parents.Millions of Americans live with mental illness; nearly one in five, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition to being pervasive, mental illnesses can vary in impact. While some conditions mildly affect people, others can severely impair a person’s ability to live a productive life. Struggles with mental health issues also naturally extend beyond U.S. borders. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 25% of people in the world will deal with a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives.

Mental health social workers can provide treatment and therapy that help individuals deal with mental disorders and mental illnesses.

Today, several factors exacerbate mental health issues and make the need for trained mental professionals especially acute. Consider the following statistics.

  • 9 % of people in the U.S. live below the poverty line
  • 2 million people are incarcerated
  • 9 in every 1,000 children faces abuse
  • More than 12 million people experience intimate partner violence

Addressing mental health issues effectively requires specific and focused professional expertise. Pursuing an online Master of Social Work can help prepare mental health social workers to deliver needed care to people living with mental illnesses.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Mental health social workers play an important role in helping people cope with thinking, emotions, and behaviors that negatively affect their lives. They also help those with mental health issues tackle the problems that make functioning in their family, social, and work lives a challenge.

Mental health social work can involve assessing and treating an array of mental, behavioral, and emotional conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and addictive behaviors. Other conditions are also commonly addressed.

  • Personality disorders, such as borderline personality and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders, including the misuse of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco
  • Anxiety-related problems, such as social anxiety, phobia, and panic disorders
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating

Building Relationships with Clients

To accomplish their work, mental health social workers cultivate ongoing relationships with families, couples, groups, children, and adults. This starts with identifying individuals and communities that need assistance. Then it proceeds to assessing those needs. Needs assessment entails examining clients’ situations, strengths, and the networks of support that are available to them. From there, mental health social workers can best guide individuals living with mental illness in goal-setting and recovery efforts.

Mental health social workers continue to build relationships with their clients by teaching them ongoing coping strategies that help them adjust to life challenges. These challenges may include the following:

  • Divorce
  • Unemployment
  • Sickness and disease

Mental health social workers also build and cultivate client relationships by responding to patients’ crises. People need extra support during such times. Mental health social workers help address urgent needs, follow up with assistance, and monitor recovery.

Helping a Range of Clients with an Array of Needs

Anyone can struggle with mental illness, so mental health social workers engage with clients of all ages and backgrounds. They design treatment plans that match the varying needs of children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Conditions that are commonly addressed span a wide range.

Depression

While any age group can experience depressive mental health problems, those 60 and older are especially at risk. Bereavement, social isolation, health problems, and limited mobility can contribute to this vulnerability. Additionally, teenagers (particularly teenage girls) experience major depressive episodes more frequently than other groups. In fact, one in five teenage girls experienced at least one episode in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center. Mental health social workers can offer therapy and develop intervention programs that target at-risk populations.

Drug and Alcohol Addictions

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, adolescents and individuals with mental health conditions are at greater risk for substance abuse problems. Incarcerated individuals also experience high rates of substance abuse disorders, with 65% of them meeting the criteria for addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Mental health social workers can use 12-step program principles to guide their practices and teach strategies that lead clients to healthier ways of dealing with life problems.

Domestic Problems

Child and spousal abuse can affect everyone. However, some factors put people at higher risk. Poverty, divorce and separation, a history of being abused, and heavy alcohol use in the home can make domestic problems more likely. Mental health social workers can intervene with therapy and direct their clients to resources and safehouses in emergency situations.

A Mental Health Social Worker Job Description

Mental health social workers focus on empowering their clients to manage and recover from mental health issues. However, they also focus on primary prevention; using interventions that help prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Some of the daily activities of a mental health social worker include:

  • Researching, referring, and advocating for mental health resources such as suicide prevention hotlines, depression screening, and substance abuse prevention programs
  • Maintaining patient records and case files
  • Creating and assessing mental health services and programs to measure their effectiveness in meeting client needs

A mental health social worker engages in activities that are typical to the social work field, and they also assume responsibilities that are geared specifically toward mental health. These activities enable mental health social workers to identify the needs of their clients and assess the best way to help them reach their goals. A variety of strategies and services can be applied to achieve positive client outcomes. 

Individual and Group Therapy

Both individual and group therapy can help people better understand and cope with their mental health issues. By sharing their experiences and listening to those of others in the group, clients can gain valuable insights and feel supported. Group therapy enables people to discover a common experience with others, which can help them feel less isolated. Individual therapy has the advantage of privacy, which allows some people to share more openly.

Mental health social workers use therapy to help their clients reduce symptoms. By teaching clients techniques and giving them coping tools, mental health social workers support improved awareness about experiences that can trigger mental issues and healthy ways to manage them.  

Crisis Intervention

Individuals may regularly experience symptoms of mental illnesses. However, symptoms can sometimes reach a crisis level and create mental health emergencies. Examples might include a suicide attempt, drug overdose, or psychotic episode. These crises cannot be managed through normal problem-solving strategies. Instead, they require quick intervention from professionals.

When crises occur, mental health social workers work to address the dangers clients face by taking specific actions.

  • Quickly assessing the situation to determine the best ways to diffuse it
  • Taking actions to reassure clients and bring calm to the situation
  • Contacting resources and professionals best equipped to assist with the crisis

After handling a crisis, mental health social workers may document the successful resources that were used and make them available to clients in the future. 

Case Management

Case management involves evaluating the mental health needs of clients and their families, followed by coordinating and monitoring a collection of mental health services that address those needs.

To assess clients, mental health social workers discuss client priorities and desired outcomes as well as strategies that can help realize those results. To make the best referrals, mental health social workers often research mental health resources and maintain active relationships with clients after they start receiving services to ensure they are effective.

Mental health social workers can find and recommend client support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon. They might also refer clients to other resources including the following.

  • Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
  • Postpartum Support International

Prevention and Education

Prevention involves organized efforts to avoid foreseeable problems. Mental health social workers research clients who are at greater risk for different mental health issues. They then develop programs for those groups and individuals using strategies that are shown to lower the incidences of mental health disorders or lessen their debilitating effects.

Part of prevention can involve education. Mental health social workers create programs that teach people to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses for early intervention. They also educate people about how to secure the help they need.

Social Work in Action

In addition to helping clients deal with mental illnesses, mental health social workers help people overcome many practical difficulties such as the following.

  • Losing a job
  • Adjusting to an illness
  • Losing a parent

The assistance mental health social workers offer is comprehensive. For example, to help parents heal after a divorce, mental health social workers may teach them coping skills. This could include building co-parenting strategies that limit conflict and increase cooperation, as well as building parental awareness of a divorce’s impact on a child. Additionally, mental health social workers can help divorced parents prepare for family situations such as blended families, stepparents, and stepsiblings.

The comprehensive support that mental health social workers provide often includes providing clients with information about support groups and local government programs. 

Mental Health Social Worker Salary

A mental health worker salary can vary according to work experience, skill sets, and geographic location. However, the median annual mental health social worker salary in March 2019 was $44,840, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). The top 10% of earners brought in more than $78,910.

BLS data also reports that insurance carriers and psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals tend to pay a higher mental health and substance abuse social worker salary, as do colleges, universities, and professional schools.

Salaries vary by state as well. Mental health social workers can find some of the highest earnings in New Jersey, Hawaii, and Connecticut, according to the BLS. The median annual salaries in these states are $79,130, $67,930, and $63,290, respectively. Additionally, the District of Columbia offers an annual median income of $69,690. Skills in areas such as counseling and case management can also garner more competitive compensation packages.

The BLS projects impressive growth for mental health social workers in the coming years. As more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, positions in the field are projected to grow 18% by 2028.

Mental Health Counselor vs. Social Worker

Both mental health counselors and social workers have many things in common and tackle similar problems. However, there are some differences worth noting.

Job Description of a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors work with individuals, families, and couples dealing with mental and emotional issues such as depression, grief, anxiety, low self-esteem, stress, and suicidal thoughts. They also help clients with relationship problems.

Mental health counselors engage in activities similar to those listed in a mental health social worker job description.

  • Assessing client mental well-being and unhealthy behaviors
  • Planning treatment goals with clients and families
  • Teaching behavior modification techniques to clients
  • Educating clients about their conditions and guiding them through strategies to address them

Though both professions work toward similar goals, they take different approaches. The social work profession focuses on providing more comprehensive services, while the counseling profession has a narrower focus.

Mental health social workers aim to do more than treat the mental health conditions at hand. They also consider the social factors that are potentially causing or exacerbating those conditions. For example, insecure housing or employment problems may intensify the symptoms of clients who are living with anxiety disorders. Mental health social workers may offer counseling to these clients, but they will also offer additional resources. They will refer clients to service providers and provide resources to help reduce the negative impacts of insecure housing or employment problems.

Mental health counselors, by comparison, will direct most of their energy toward addressing the immediate symptoms of the clients’ anxiety disorders and helping them develop skills to manage them.  

Work Environments

Mental health counselors work in various settings, including mental health facilities, halfway houses, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and probation agencies. They may also work in residential and outpatient treatments centers or in private practice.

Mental health social workers, on the other hand, often work in offices in hospitals, mental health facilities, community health centers, and rehabilitation treatment centers. They also may visit clients in schools or other locations where they are assigned. Additionally, mobile technology and videoconferencing make it possible for mental health social workers to conduct remote counseling.

Educational Requirements and Key Skills

Educational requirements for mental health counselors vary. Some positions require only a bachelor’s degree, but most positions call for a master’s degree and the completion of an internship. To become licensed (a requirement for private practice), mental health counselors must earn a master’s degree, satisfy between 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical work, and pass state exams.

Educational requirements can vary for mental health social workers as well. However, as with mental health counselors, most social work positions require a master’s degree. All clinical positions require state licensure that requires completion of a master’s degree, two years of supervised experience in a clinical setting, and passing a clinical exam. 

Mental health counselors and mental health social workers alike need similar skill sets to succeed.

  • Compassion and emotional skills; to build strong client relationships, help clients manage stressful situations, and nurture clients through their challenges
  • Interpersonal skills; to relate and communicate well with a variety of people and cultivate productive relationships
  • Communication skills; to listen to and interpret clients’ needs and values, and verbally express ideas and information clearly
  • Patience; to effectively manage stressful situations with clients and be a calming influence

In addition to these competencies, mental health social workers particularly benefit from strong organizational skills that help them handle numerous clients and maintain documentation. They also need to be excellent problem solvers to devise creative solutions for their clients’ challenges. 

Pursue a Career in Mental Health Social Work

Mental health social workers can leverage their expertise to empower vulnerable individuals to overcome their challenges and lead productive lives despite their mental health issues.

To bring vital services to underserved communities, a mental health social worker needs the proper education. An advanced degree in social work can cultivate the skills and knowledge to support communities and individuals in overcoming adversity. It can also offer insight into how policies and social needs affect populations and can prepare mental health social workers to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

Explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work can prepare aspiring mental health social workers to launch successful careers in the field.

Recommended Readings

Career Spotlight: Substance Abuse Social Worker

Social Workers Addressing Social Isolation in Older Adults

Social Workers Reducing the Impact of Poverty 

Sources:

American Addiction Centers, “Alcohol and Drug Abuse Statistics”
Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Risk and Protective Factors for Perpetration”
Child Trends, “Child Maltreatment”
CNN, “5 Facts Behind America’s High Incarceration Rate”
CNN, “Domestic (Intimate Partner) Violence Fast Facts”
Community Care, “Taking a Prevention Approach Is Core to What We Do… This Is the Bread and Butter of Social Work”
Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Group Interventions”
The Lancet, “Preventive Strategies for Mental Health”
Mental Health First Aid USA, “Mental Health Resources”
National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Criminal Justice Drug Facts”
NIH, “Mental Illness”
Pew Research Center, “A Growing Number of American Teenagers – Particularly Girls – Are Facing Depression”
Social Solutions, “20 Social Worker Statistics to Celebrate Social Work Month
Social Work Today, “Case Management at the Intersection of Social Work and Health Care”
Social Worker Toolbox, Divorce
Social Work Today, “The Future of Health Care — Expansion of Social Workers for Equitable Practice”
The Balance Careers, “Important Job Skills Social Workers Need”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers