It’s no secret to many that mental health issues are on the rise in the United States. Severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation have been increasing in recent years, leading to an increased need for skilled mental health professionals to help deal with the problem.

The mental health field is usually associated with psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors. Social workers are not usually the first professionals that come to mind when it comes to mental health — they tend to have an entirely different, sometimes negative association. But in reality, dealing with mental health issues often comes up in the social worker’s line of work, and social workers actually have a much more important role in mental health than you might think.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

First, let’s take a look at what real social workers actually do, and what role they play.

A social worker’s job is to help individuals and families improve their quality of life. This might happen through counseling and advocacy, such as helping to guide clients through the legal system during court hearings, counseling on their behalf to health professionals or community organizations, and more. In short, a social worker’s job is to help make someone’s life better. Beneath that umbrella, there are a number of career paths and specializations. Some choose to work with children and families, others on a community scale, and some in rehabilitation centers and in health care — including mental health care.

In fact, social workers with the proper certification — licensed clinical social workers — are qualified to diagnose and treat health issues, including behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues.

As mentioned above, the term “social worker” is a broad one, applying to a wide variety of professional specializations:

  • Community social workers, who typically refer residents to community resources and help organize their local community to help its residents lead better lives.
  • Child and family social workers, who work with children and their parents/guardians to help with issues impacting the family’s lives. These challenges might be due to illness, stress at school or home, or other factors.
  • Health care social workers help patients get back into the routine of their everyday lives following an illness or injury. They offer resources and information to patients to help them understand their diagnoses and might help them make the appropriate lifestyle changes.
  • School social workers, who provide students, teachers, and parents with assistance to help students make the most of their education. They work with parents and educators to understand issues that might impact the students’ performance and help with the counseling and resources to help improve the situation.

Where Social Workers Fit in the Mental Health Industry

Social workers play a major part in mental health both in government institutions and the private sector. Mental health workers work with people who suffer from a variety of conditions, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and more. Sometimes these issues are severe and can be connected to illness, homelessness, or addiction.

The responsibilities of a mental health worker include visiting with their clients, establishing trust, and learning their needs so their challenges can be dealt with. It’s also vital that mental health workers, as health care professionals, understand the rights of their patients — even advocating for them in a legal environment if need be.

Mental health workers help their clients set up and achieve goals, guide them toward resources they can use to further support the pursuit of those goals, and otherwise act as a confidant and aide.

What Qualifications do Social Workers Need?

Becoming a social worker requires no small amount of qualifications. A minimum requirement for becoming a social worker is a bachelor’s degree in social work, although many students go on to pursue a graduate degree program — which is another minimum in many states.

Any master’s in social work (MSW) program must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Following the acquisition of a degree, there are licensing, certification, and registration requirements that vary by state. Some states may require examinations, full-time employment, supervised hours, or additional education before official licensing is granted.

Where Do Mental Health Social Workers Typically Work?

Just as there are many career paths and specializations in the field of mental health social work, there are a wide variety of places a mental health social worker might find employment, not including those with independent practice recognition (IPR) who have their own non-clinical social work services. Some of the places you might work as a mental health social worker include:

  • Community centers
  • NGOs
  • Schools
  • Homeless shelters
  • Child welfare organizations/children’s homes (orphanages)
  • Senior citizen / retirement homes
  • Addiction centers
  • Suicide and crisis intervention hotlines
  • Private hospitals and medical centers
  • Government and academic institutions
  • Legal sector and courts