How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

If you’re interested in helping others to overcome their problems and improve their emotional health, continue reading to learn about the typical job duties of a mental health social worker, how to become one, the salary outlook and more.

What is a Mental Health Social Worker?

Living with a mental illness can present challenges for many individuals, families, and communities. For some people, mental illnesses can make day to day life difficult. Mental health social workers play a critical role in improving overall wellbeing and mental health in our society. They spend their time assessing, diagnosing, treating and preventing mental, behavioral and emotional issues. Some mental illnesses that they address include depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder.

In addition to working with clients directly, they also provide therapy in individual, group and family settings, depending on the circumstances. If you have a passion for helping those who are challenged with living with mental illness, a mental health social work profession may be right for you.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

University of Southern California

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 16 months
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

University of Denver

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months

Syracuse University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Howard University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

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How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field like psychology.
Step 2: Complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in social work may be able to complete their master’s in less than one year, with an advanced standing MSW program.
Step 3: Complete a social work internship or practicum during which you work with clients experiencing mental health issues. Not all states require this step for licensure as a mental health social worker. However, to obtain licensure as a clinical social worker, graduates of MSW programs must complete, on average, two years of post-MSW clinical experience hours.
Step 4: Obtain licensure in the state in which you want to practice. Social work licensure requirements vary by state.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Roles & Responsibilities

The work of a mental health social worker will depend on their work environment (private practice vs. working for a non-profit, for example) and how they provide treatment (individual vs. group, for example). They may gain clients based on referrals in the setting they work in or clients may seek them out through therapist services and recommendations. They perform work that is similar to counselors and they make up one of the largest groups of mental health service providers. They work with at-risk and vulnerable populations as well.

Typically, healthcare social workers:

  • Intake clients’ needs based on their unique history and current situation
  • Provide clients with mental health strategies to cope with challenges
  • Provide and refer resources to clients
  • Follow up with clients and track progress
  • Offer psychotherapy services
  • Improve client’s physical issues caused by mental health challenges, such as poor sleep, abnormal diet and nutrition, pain, low energy levels, drug abuse and self-harm
  • Help clients cope with life stress and mitigate issues like hopelessness, apathy, anger, sadness and fighting
  • Work productively with client’s to help achieve their goals and make meaningful contributions
  • Increase client’s will to live impactful lives

They may also facilitate support groups, such as those for addiction. They also work with other healthcare professionals like doctors in a hospital setting or with school administrators if they’re treating student clients.

Where Do Mental Health Social Workers Work?

Mental health social workers work in a variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, mental health clinics, community health organizations, primary care facilities and rehabilitation treatment centers. According to the BLS, the largest employers of social workers in 2019 were:

  • Individual and family services: 18%
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: 14%
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: 14%
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: 13%

Most social workers work in office settings, but they may also go to clients directly. Digital therapy prevalence has also been increasing, enabling healthcare social workers to counsel remotely through the use of technology.

What Skills Do Mental Health Social Workers Possess?

Due to the nature of social work, excellent communication skills are crucial. Practitioners in this field need to be able to build a rapport with their clients, ensuring each one develops enough trust to share what they’re going through and follow the social worker’s recommendations.

People in this field must also have exceptional emotional and interpersonal skills. Social workers need to exhibit empathy and compassion, as their clients are often undergoing stressful situations.

Mental health professionals must have a passion for problem-solving. They devise and recommend solutions for their clients’ unique needs. They must also be organized since their work requires filling out paperwork, documenting the treatment and managing client appointments.

Mental Health Social Worker Salary

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for mental health social workers in May 2020 was $51,760. The highest 10% of social workers earned more than $85,820.

The median annual wage reported by the BLS includes wages for those in social work with only a bachelor’s degree, who aren’t licensed.

Mental health social workers may be employed in a variety of settings. According to the BLS, the 2020 median annual wages for various environments for all social workers were as follows:

  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $57,660
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: $52,850
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: $49,860
  • Individual and family services: $43,820

Typically, higher education and licensure in social work increases earning potential. The BLS reports the 2020 median usual weekly earnings for those with a master’s degree were $1,545, compared to $1,305 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

There are healthcare social worker roles in all types of environments like these. Some social workers also seek out positions in leadership roles, such as administration in nonprofits or in hospital administration.

Interested in Becoming a Mental Health Social Worker? Earn Your Online MSW Degree

Learn more about social work degrees:

Studying to become a mental health social worker can be possible no matter where you live, thanks to online MSW programs. Online MSW programs are taught by accredited universities and teach the skills needed for fulfilling careers. Students can take classes at their own pace, in the pleasure of their home, which is convenient because they don’t have to relocate to learn. Earn your degree while continuing to work and prepare for the future of your dreams.