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Noodle Staff
Noodle Expert Member

March 10, 2021

Looking for insight into how to become a licensed mental health social worker. Allow Noodle to assist you in laying out the groundwork.

How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Social Worker

Are you drawn toward helping people impacted by mental illness and mental health difficulties? Would you value helping those dealing with substance abuse problems? Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone you care about struggle in these areas, or maybe it’s part of your own life experience. If so, you may be considering the field of a mental health social worker. This field is expanding rapidly and the need for competent professionals is high.

What a mental health social worker does

A mental health social worker's job description will vary depending on the particular agency, but some overlap exists. They are known for assessing and treating people with mental health difficulties and emotional problems. This group also helps those impacted by substance abuse.

A mental health and substance abuse social worker's job description may include activities like crisis intervention, individual or group therapy, or case management. You may also work on the front lines of education or prevention. Social workers in the mental health field have many options available to them.

You may find opportunities to do some of the following activities:

  • Provide counseling services to individuals to assist them with issues related to substance abuse or mental health problems. Examples of these issues might be unemployment, stress, family tension, etc.
  • Set treatment goals and monitor progress toward these goals with proper documentation. This is important to assess whether what you’re doing is being effective.
  • Collaborate with other professionals. In individuals dealing with substance abuse or mental health problems, it is likely they’ll have a team of professionals working to assist them. Your role as a mental health social worker will coordinate with other disciplines.
  • Provide referrals to outside resources to help the individual. This would be helpful if you notice a need that is easily met through another agency, such as a food bank or similar resource for someone who struggles to buy food. This assists the individual in meeting the goals of their treatment plan by assisting with details of daily life.

Mental health counseling vs social work

As you look into these field of work, you may have examined the positions of a mental health counselor vs a social worker, wondering what made each field distinct. It’s true that some social workers, at the clinical master’s level, choose to provide counseling services to individuals. A mental health social worker could very well provide counseling as part of the job duties.

However, a mental health counselor who has a degree in some form of counseling specializes in that area of study. Their entire focus is on helping individuals understand ways to cope with difficulties and the related emotions.

A mental health and substance abuse social worker holds a much broader focus, because they aren’t restricted to counseling only. They might also provide case management, be a community advocate, lead educational programs, or work toward systemic change of a particular area that affects the individuals he or she serves. Although a mental health counselor could definitely choose to engage in these activities, a social worker is specifically trained for these kinds of duties.

Skills needed for a social worker in mental health

A person performing social work in a mental health field needs skills similar to social workers working in other fields. But those skills are distinct, and you will easily know if you possess them.

Listening: An important skill is active listening, which will likely comprise much of your job in this field. You can’t help the individuals you serve if they don’t feel comfortable being truthful with you. Active listening is a mixture of truly listening and responding in a way to where the individual can sense your full engagement.

Emotional intelligence: Others who choose to become mental health social workers have a high emotional intelligence level. This requires you to be very self-aware in addition to possessing a great deal of empathy for others. People with high emotional intelligence tend to be intuitive; they certainly don’t ignore the facts, but they’re great at “reading between the lines."

Critical thinking: Critical thinking skills are essential for a career in social work and mental health, since the individuals you will serve are likely to have a variety of complex problems. It helps to be a quick thinker who can think of all the options easily.

Organization: Organization plays a big role, too. A lot of documentation is necessary to address the effectiveness of your services and to request payment. It’s necessary to streamline the process by having things arranged in an orderly fashion.

Tolerance: Tolerance is key, as well. Social work in mental health and substance abuse will require interaction with many varied individuals, and all of them won’t hold the same values as you hold. It’s important that you can treat each individual with dignity and respect.

Licensed mental health social worker education requirements

In order to be a social worker, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree and pass the licensing exam in your state whether completed in class or online. For mental health social work opportunities, you can find many entry level positions with a bachelor’s degree.

To advance in your career, sometimes a master’s degree is necessary. Some organizations prefer to hire social workers at this level, and you must have a master’s degree to do any clinical work.

You can also obtain a PhD in social work to be a professor or conduct research. You would want to make sure your school was properly accredited before you commit to attending. That’s true for all levels of social work degrees.

Overview of important field work experience

A field practicum is an essential part of a social work education experience, even at the bachelor’s level. The number of hours required will vary depending on the school you choose to attend. Your choices of agencies will vary also, depending on the community where you reside. If you want to pursue a career of social work in mental health, it would certainly be to your advantage to choose a field practicum in that area.

An example of field practicum requirements can be found at Texas State University. For BSW students, they require a total of 500 practicum hours between two classes. While the MSW students will fulfill 360 practicum hours, also divided between two classes.

As stated, colleges will vary on the amount of hours they choose to require for a field practicum. At the University of Buffalo, MSW students complete a minimum of 420 hours at their field placement and must spend at least 15 hours per week doing this activity.

Doing the field work may take some time, but is truly an asset to the student because it gives you some hands-on experience in the field you hope to pursue in your career. If you have adjustments to make, it’s much easier to make them as a student than it is when you’re committed to a particular place of employment.

Mental health social worker licensing requirements

The group that oversees licensing for social workers is called Association of Social Work Boards. (ASWB) Requirements differ from one state to another, but there is an exam to become a licensed social worker at the bachelor’s and master’s level. You can also become a licensed clinical social worker when you complete the MSW and some additional hours of experience under supervision.

In Illinois, for example, you can get a license as an LSW--licensed social worker--or LCSW--licensed clinical social worker. The LSW is for entry level positions and doesn’t work independently of an LCSW for supervision.

Unfortunately, there is no official program of reciprocity between states. If you’re licensed to practice in one state, it’s not a given that you can do the same thing in another state without meeting additional requirements. Each state has its own set of guidelines.

Mental health social worker jobs

Who typically hires mental health social workers? Since social workers in this field also work with individuals impacted by substance abuse, some of the places you might work include treatment centers for substance abuse. Some psychiatric hospitals target individuals with either mental illness or substance abuse problems, so a mental health social worker would be an ideal fit there.

You could also work in state agencies designed to help those with mental illness, or private agencies striving to reach this population. If you’re at the licensed clinical social worker level, you may even provide counseling in either your own or someone else’s private practice.

The need is widespread, but funds may be more available in urban areas vs rural ones. Although many rural areas have programs to meet the needs of this population, also.

Indeed{:target="_blank"} lists multiple openings around the country and is an excellent source to consider.

Licensed mental health social worker salary expectations

A mental health social worker salary will certainly be dependent upon your level of education and experience, as well as the region where you live. However, the national average for mental health social workers is $49,587. Here are some examples of major cities and the mental health and substance abuse social worker salary averages:

  • New York City: $55,018
  • San Francisco: $66,466
  • Chicago: $48,345
  • Boston: $51,349
  • Los Angeles:$57,391
  • Dallas: $50,033

Although work as a mental health and substance abuse social worker requires a great deal of commitment, it can certainly be a rewarding career. It’s a job where you can truly make a difference at the end of the day. If you feel like you’re a good match to work in this field, it’s definitely worth pursuing the education to do so.

Works Cited:

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

Clinical Mental Health Counseling vs Social Work. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

What Skills are Required to be a Social Worker? Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

Mental Health Social Worker Career Information… Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

School of Social Work. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

University of Buffalo: School of Social Work. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

ASWB. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

Indeed. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at

Glassdoor. Retrieved on April 1, 2018 at,27.htm