The Important Role Social Workers Play in Mental Health

Social worker interviews mature womanClinically trained social workers are the nation’s largest group of mental health service providers. Social work is considered one of the five core mental health professions by federal law and National Institutes of Health. With more than 200,000 in the field, there are more clinical social workers than psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychiatric nurses combined.

Who Are Social Workers?

Social workers are highly trained professionals working to improve the quality of life and well-being of others through direct practice, crisis intervention, research, community organizing, policy change, advocacy, and educational programs. Social workers are dedicated to the pursuit of social justice and strive to help those affected by poverty, disabilities, illnesses, divorce, unemployment, and other personal problems and social disadvantages.

Being a social worker requires extensive knowledge of human behavior and development, as well as social, cultural, and economic institutions and the ways in which they interact. Most social workers will hold at least a bachelor’s degree in social work or related field, though many (especially clinicians) will hold a master’s degree and valid license to practice.

A good social worker will often possess a high degree of compassion and empathy, a passion for helping others, strong interpersonal and problem-solving skills, and good listening and organizational skills.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers fight for social justice, equality, and the overall well-being of people in need. Social workers are responsible for many of the liberties we have today. These include:

  • Civil rights for all citizens regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, faith, etc.
  • Medicaid and Medicare programs that provide disadvantaged groups access to health care
  • Child abuse and neglect prevention programs
  • Unemployment insurance, disability pay, worker’s compensation, and social security
  • Humane treatment for those with mental health conditions and developmental issues

In addition to advocacy work, social workers also help people solve problems in their daily lives. They may assist those who are adopting a child, fighting an illness, or facing an addiction. They help protect abused or neglected children, deal with behavioral problems in schools, and help hospice patients adjust.

Clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental health conditions as well. They provide individual, family, and couples therapy, and they assist with depression, anxiety, family problems, and other mental health or behavioral issues. They may work in private practice or at a mental health or therapeutic facility. Social workers host support groups, create treatment plans, and facilitate interventions when necessary.

Some common duties of a social worker include:

  • Identifying and reaching out to those in need.
  • Assessing people’s needs and implementing a plan of action.
  • Helping people adjust to major life changes.
  • Responding to crisis situations.
  • Connecting people with important resources and support.
  • Evaluating social services and support programs.
  • Providing advocacy for people when needed.
  • Following up with people to ensure circumstances are improving.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

There are several common areas of focus in the social work industry:

  • Administration/supervision
  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Children, adolescents, and young adults
  • Child welfare
  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Private practice
  • School social work
  • Social and economic justice and peace
  • Social work and the courts

A good social worker will often possess a high degree of compassion and empathy, a passion for helping others, strong interpersonal and problem-solving skills, as well as good listening and organizational skills.Social work is unique in the way it can be found in most aspects of community life. Social workers are employed in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospices and nursing homes, private practices, government institutions, correctional facilities, law offices, military organizations, public welfare agencies, nonprofit organizations, and some private businesses and corporations.

Even when social workers are employed in office, they may spend time traveling to visit with people in need. School social workers may also travel from school to school or hospital social workers from hospital to hospital.

Why Social Work Is in Demand

According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, overall employment of social workers is expected to grow at a rate of 19% between 2012 and 2022. The demand for health care social workers is expected to grow by as much as 27% during this same time period—a rate much higher than the average growth rate for all occupations. One reason for the increase in demand is due to the aging of the baby boomers, who will soon need long-term care and assistance.

Social workers in the mental health and substance abuse fields will also be in high demand, with a 23% increase in employment expected by 2022. More people are expected to seek mental health treatment, and people who have a substance addiction are increasingly sent to treatment programs rather than jails or prisons.

How to Become a Social Worker

Those interested in entering the social work profession should first prepare for admission to the program of their choice by gaining valuable volunteer experience and obtaining professional references in the field.

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for an entry-level social work position, but most employers prefer a graduate degree. A master’s level education in social work is a requirement for clinical licensure in most states.

An undergraduate degree in social work is not necessary to gain admittance to a master’s program; virtually any bachelor’s degrees will suffice. Upon graduation, a few years of supervised work is necessary to gain licensure.

When to Reach Out to a Social Worker

  • You’re seeking therapy or treatment for depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition.
  • You’ve recently undergone a major life change (divorce, death of a loved one, etc.) and need support.
  • You have witnessed child abuse or neglect.
  • You need geriatric assistance for an elderly family member.
  • You are coping with a drug or alcohol addiction.
  • You are finding it difficult to cover the costs of basic needs (food, shelter, water, or others).
  • You or a loved one is battling a major illness.
  • You have recently become unemployed or disabled.
  • Your child is experiencing behavior problems at school.


  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Social Workers. Retrieved from
  2. National Association of Social Workers. (NASW). Social Work Profession. Retrieved from
  3. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Social Work History. Retrieved from
  4. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Who are Social Workers? We Help. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jameson

    December 14th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    These are the people who would be the most responsible with getting people with the resources that they need at any given point in time. They are literally a lifeline for a whole lot of people and yet they get very little praise and recognition overall.

  • Candace

    December 14th, 2015 at 3:31 PM

    They sure do have a lot of job responsibility
    without nearly enough in compensation

  • Janet P

    December 14th, 2015 at 6:24 PM

    We do have a lot on our plate. Thanks for posting.

  • harrison

    December 15th, 2015 at 9:44 AM

    These are the people who advocate for those who tend to not have a voice of their own. I don’t think that we give enough credit to this group of professionals who typically go above and beyond the call of duty if they know that what they are doing is helping and serving another individual.

  • Jane

    December 15th, 2015 at 7:12 PM

    thanks for your recognition… It means a lot. I’ve been practicing social worker for over 30 years and were recently become an RM.

  • Barb

    December 15th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Think about all of the agencies and resources that they have to keep up with. They have to know where to refer which clients and who could benefit from what service but maybe not that one. I mean, that is a lot!

  • Jason

    December 16th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    I do wish that there was a little more understanding about the work that most social workers find themselves engaged in. This is more than just about being a case manager. In many cases you are their link to normalcy, a counselor, and a friend. I think that in many instances families just need someone to talk to who really hears and understands their concerns and they do not get a lot of that. Social workers do a huge amount of work in filling that void for many families.

  • Gary B

    December 16th, 2015 at 10:11 AM

    Good article but you need to be aware that licensure requirements vary from state to state. Some of what you describe here is very specific to “clinical licensure.” But there are other levels of licensure in most states, and those requirements are different from what you describe.

  • Gigi P

    December 17th, 2015 at 9:47 PM

    Most of the mass shootings have involved youth or adults with a history of mental illness. Too often families and individuals have fallen between the cracks because of the lack of services available or because there was no one to help them navigate the systems for help. In my former profession I often came in contact with numerous individuals and families who needed help accessing mental services. It was the mental health social workers who I contacted or referred them to. Because of the immense size of our state geographically, the weather barriers in many areas of the state, and number of very rural (Alaskan Bush) communities, it is often impossible for help to be available without a plane or boat ride to a larger community. We have to rely on the social workers in our schools or the village clinics to provide help 24/7. They have a tough job to do but they do it well.

  • Amelia

    December 21st, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    It wasn’t until I looked over this list that I fully realized what kind of role social workers play in the lives of numerous amounts of people. There are those who rely on them for practically every service that they receive, there are those who receive a little help, and then pretty much anything in between. The spectrum that it appears that they deal with is massive and they should be commended much more often for the varying and taxing jobs that they must do.

  • Aliy A

    June 22nd, 2016 at 12:16 AM

    Social workers are very essential to the growth of a Nation but most leaders fail to recognise that. They are are like a bedrock that should not be under-emphasized especially in Developing countries that’s always faced with series of social problems like poverty,juvenile delinquencydomestic violence to mention but a few. I look uptown that generation when Social work would be accorded the necessary recognition but I pray It comes early. I’m proud to be a social work student.

  • Priyanka

    June 8th, 2021 at 9:42 PM

    Thanks for the article and trying to contribute to the discourse.
    However, please clarify how could a Clinical/Psychiatric Social Worker diagnose and prescribe treatment? They can support with therapeutic and counselling interventions, yes, but how can they diagnose/treat? Social Worker are para-Health professionals working alongwith other professionals like Psychiatrist, Occupational Therapist, Therapist and so on. Yes, there could be some role overlaps, but certainly not when it comes to diagnosing/prescribing treatment. Social Workers can support the process.
    I work as a Psychiatric/Mental Health Social Worker in Mumbai, India.
    Please let me know if you beg to differ or if I have missed out something. Would be glad to recieve and listen:)

    Stay safe and take care.

  • Fola

    February 9th, 2023 at 3:02 PM

    Clinical Social Workers are professionals that can diagnose and treat any mental illnesses. They do have a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work Practice and some of them are specialized in Mental Health and Addictions.

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