What Do Clinical Social Workers Do?

What Do Clinical Social Workers Do?
As a clinical social worker, you may address areas of prevention, diagnosis, treatment, or a combination of these, when working with people in need. Image from Unsplash
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Noodle Staff March 19, 2018

Thinking of a career as a clinical social worker? Let Noodle lead you through the ins and outs of a clinical social worker career.

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In today’s fast-paced, stressful society, it’s more important than ever to know effective ways to deal with issues that impact mental health. These problems either affect more people then ever before, or we’re becoming more aware of them as a society.

Clinical social workers spend time on the front lines delivering mental health services to individuals who need help the most. A diverse range of social problems affect many people today, from homelessness, poverty, child welfare issues, medical needs, end of life care, substance abuse disorders, and more. Most of these areas of difficulty can become mental health issues for the individuals who experience them.

What do clinical social workers do?

As a clinical social worker, you may address areas of prevention, diagnosis, treatment, or a combination of these, when working with people in need. As a clinical social worker, one of your main goals will be to improve the quality of life for the individuals you serve.

A clinical social worker isn’t the same as a bachelor’s level licensed social worker or even a social worker with a master’s degree alone. A clinical social worker is indicated by the letters LCSW. In order to achieve this designation, a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) is required in addition to approximately two years of supervised experience in a clinical capacity. You must also be licensed in the specific state where you live.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a great deal of dedication and effort. You’ll need to pass licensure exams, complete the MSW program, and obtain the supervised experience. It’s not essential to obtain the LCSW in order to become employed, but it’s a social work credential in a higher tier.



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Responsibilities of a clinical social worker

What does a clinical social worker do? A clinical social worker is an advocate for individuals who may have a difficult time speaking up for themselves. The clinical social worker also possesses knowledge of available resources and connects the individual being served with those agencies and organizations that can be a benefit.

In addition to these responsibilities, a clinical social worker often helps individuals cope with serious personal issues. These issues may include mental illness, domestic violence, past traumas, substance abuse disorder, and a host of other difficulties. A clinical social worker can often diagnose and treat a variety of conditions.

As a clinical social worker, you will not prescribe any medications, but you can work as a team with other professionals overseeing the care and treatment of the individuals you serve. If you’re working with someone who has bipolar disorder, for example, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication for the individual. As a clinical social worker, you could assist the person by linking him or her to additional resources, offering counseling to improve coping skills, offering education about the condition of bipolar disorder, and making sure no gaps exist in the delivery of services.

A clinical social worker tends to look at the whole environment of the individual being served. You can’t address only one aspect of the individual’s presenting problem while ignoring other areas.

As an example, a person whose financial situation makes it impossible to obtain enough food will likely be unable to focus on learning coping skills for complex problems. If you, as a clinical social worker, can link them to a resource to assist them with obtaining adequate food, then you’ll have more success helping them with the necessary coping skills in other areas. This idea is backed by the psychological theory known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Skills of a clinical social worker

A clinical social worker needs to have excellent communication skills and understand the ethical requirements of the social work profession. It’s also essential that you are able to collaborate with other professionals since many individuals being served require assistance from multiple professionals or organizations. Clinical social workers often encounter individuals in a crisis, so it’s important for the clinical social worker to be emotionally stable and resilient.

In some fields of clinical social work, crisis intervention becomes a major part of your career. It’s necessary to develop skills in handling someone else’s crisis without becoming emotionally upset yourself. Clinical social workers must maintain separation between their work life and personal life to avoid burnout.

As a clinical social worker, you’ll also need to possess great empathy and be willing to work with individuals whose values might not match your own. One of the ethical principles that applies to clinical social workers involves recognizing and respecting the inherent dignity and worth of each individual. You will likely encounter cultural and ethnic diversity, but it’s important to treat each person as an individual who possesses inherent worth as a human being.

Another social work value is self-determination for the individuals you serve as a clinical social worker. This means you assist them in making what are the best decisions, based on their values and not necessarily yours. Clinical social workers work to empower others to make their own choices and take charge of their own lives. You won’t always agree with the choices made by the individuals you serve, but that is part of being a clinical social worker.

Of course, if an individual is making obvious poor choices, such as breaking the law, abusing drugs, or otherwise doing something harmful, it is expected that you, as a clinical social worker, will communicate this to the individual. Help them to make more appropriate choices, even if those aren’t the same choices you would personally make. Of course, if they are a danger to themselves or someone else, you must intervene in a way to promote the safety of anyone involved.

Another skill a clinical social worker must possess is the ability to honor the confidentiality of the individuals served. This might seem easy enough until a stressful work day occurs. It could be tempting to talk to family or friends with private information involving the individuals you serve, but it’s completely unethical to do so.

Areas of specialization for clinical social workers

As a clinical social worker, you may specialize in a particular area, depending on what organization employs you. Some clinical social workers also offer counseling in private practice settings. Even if you work in private practice, you may be able to choose the population you serve to some degree. This means you could specialize in a particular field of counseling as a clinical social worker.

If you, as a clinical social worker, are employed in the community, you can choose to specialize in child welfare, school social work, the medical field, the mental health area, addiction, serving individuals with disabilities, hospice care, nursing home care, etc. Choices for specialization are abundant for the clinical social worker. Although in some cases, the clinical social worker may encounter individuals with needs in multiple categories at once.

One growing area for clinical social workers, especially in the medical field, is working with the geriatric population. The aging baby boomer population will require comprehensive care, and jobs for clinical social workers to address this need are expected to rise significantly by 2026.

Different work environments for clinical social workers

Clinical social workers can be found in agencies and organizations where people are impacted by personal and social problems. This means you would expect to find clinical social workers in Child Protective Services, clinics for mental health conditions, hospitals, nursing homes, in agencies that serve the homeless populations, in programs that address poverty, in treatment centers for addictions, in many schools. This closely relates to the areas of specialization that are available.

Clinical social workers living in urban areas often have more choices for employment. Although the needs definitely exist in rural areas, sometimes the funding is not available or else the individuals impacted are only a small portion of the population. The work environments available in urban areas would be more numerous.

Most clinical social workers are employed full time, and may frequently work evenings, weekends, or holidays. Even in private practice, you might receive a crisis call from a person you serve that requires after-hours assistance.

How to enhance your clinical social worker career

Like most careers, the field of social work is constantly evolving. New research becomes available, or experts discover more effective ways to treat the individuals being served. It’s important to seek out ways to receive additional training and perhaps get further certifications.

One example of a new area is called Motivational Interviewing. This method of communicating has shown great promise during clinical trials, and the goal is to address and resolve ambivalence in the individuals you serve. It started out to help those dealing with alcohol problems, but has branched out to a wide variety of populations.

For this and similar continuing education, seek out a nearby university with a MSW program even if it’s not one you’ve attended. This is the best way to find continuing education classes. Also consider inquiring at your place of employment. It gives you an edge in your clinical social work practice when you continually attend training to update your education and experience.

How much does a clinical social worker make?

Although many social workers choose their field for reasons other than money, it’s still valid to wonder how much you’ll make if you become a clinical social worker. It does vary greatly depending on the region where you’re practicing, as well as what field you work in. In January of 2018, the median annual salary for a licensed clinical social worker was $66,749. Although it could range up to $72,144 or be as low as $61,523. This information came from clinical social workers in the United States only.

If you’re practicing as a clinical social worker in the United States, some regions tend to pay better. These higher paying areas include District of Columbia, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Connecticut. California and Nevada were the highest, with a mean salary of just over $71,000 annually.

In 2016, clinical social workers earned an income similar to marriage and family therapists but generally had incomes exceeding those working as substance abuse counselors or social workers in the field of family and child welfare.

Other factors influence how much compensation you’ll receive as a clinical social worker. Many of the same factors affect employment in other areas, such as public sector vs private, length of time with employer, demand for your services in that area, and the skills and experience you brought to the position.

Overall, the need for clinical social workers is still high. If you have the skills needed, it’s a profession that can be very rewarding because of the genuine help it gives to other individuals. Making a difference in people’s lives is always a positive thing.

But clinical social work is often stressful due to its very nature of working with troubled individuals. However, if you are great at maintaining separation between your work life and your home life, possess the necessary skills, and are in agreement with the ethical values of the profession, it may be a perfect fit for you.

Works Cited:

(Updated on January 9, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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