A counselor takes notes while meeting with a client.
A counselor takes notes while meeting with a client.

Mental Health Counseling vs. Social Work

Students interested in pursuing a career that allows them to improve the lives of others may find themselves researching mental health counseling vs. social work careers. Although the two paths share similarities, such as providing support to individuals and families, their professional scope of work is distinct. Additionally, the educational and licensing requirements for these positions can vary widely depending on the state where individuals wish to practice.

Professionals leaning toward pursuing counseling careers must begin by developing the knowledge and experience needed to excel in this field and pursue state licensure. Completing an advanced degree, such as an online Master’s in Counseling, can prepare graduates with the high-quality education needed to help clients struggling with mental health and life issues. 

Definitions: Mental Health Counseling vs. Social Work

Mental health counselors’ and social workers’ day-to-day job duties can vary widely. For example, although professionals in both fields help clients address and cope with problems, mental health counselors solely focus on helping clients overcome mental health issues. Social workers, on the other hand, can help connect clients with additional services aimed at improving their lives. 

Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counselors provide services to individuals seeking treatment for relationship issues, such as divorce, emotional health disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and other mental health disorders, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to providing clients with guidance and support, they help them identify and cope with negative emotions and triggers using strategies designed to help them improve their quality of life.

Professionals in this field work in a variety of environments, such as outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, hospitals, residential mental health facilities, schools, private practices, community centers, government organizations and correctional facilities. Most mental health counselors work full time, Monday through Friday, in office settings, but professionals working for facilities that provide 24-hour care may work nights, weekends and on-call shifts. 

Social Work

Social workers help connect individuals and families with resources designed to help them improve their lives, such as mental health and substance abuse programs, food and housing assistance programs, childcare services, health care services, support groups and adoption and foster family services. In addition to assessing clients’ needs to determine which programs best address them, they help clients adjust to challenges and changes in their lives, such as divorce, the loss of a spouse or child and illness and unemployment. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), who are required to have a Master of Social Work (MSW) and licensure by the state, can also conduct therapy and mental health counseling.

Many social workers work full time in the field or office settings. However, some may travel to visit clients offsite.

Similarities Between Mental Health Counseling and Social Work

Although the day-to-day job duties of mental health counselors vs. social workers can vary significantly, professionals interested in pursuing jobs within these fields must share similar qualities and skills. For example, since mental health counselors and social workers both provide emotional support to clients, professionals in these fields must be compassionate and have strong communication, interpersonal and organizational skills, as well as the ability to analyze complex situations and identify practical solutions.

Additionally, both types of professionals must excel in developing relationships with their clients. This helps ensure that their clients feel comfortable discussing the areas in which they need assistance.

Salary ranges for the two positions are also largely similar. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as of May 2021, the median annual wage salary for mental health counselors was $48,520, whereas the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390. Salaries can vary widely based on experience, education level, the hiring facility and location.

Differences Between Mental Health Counseling and Social Work

Despite sharing similarities, the fields of mental health counseling and social work are quite different. For example, whereas social workers help connect clients with services to help them address problems such as food and housing insecurity and challenges in accessing childcare or health care, mental health counselors specialize in helping clients address and overcome mental health issues, such as grief, depression and disordered eating. 

Another notable difference between mental health counseling and social work is the practice models that each field employs. Mental health counselors use the wellness model, a holistic approach that facilitates wellbeing on mental and physical levels. This works through the adoption of personalized lifestyle choices and decisions that work towards the overall wellness of each individual. One method of assessing and applying wellness in counseling is through a four phase approach. The phases include: 

  • Introducing the wellness model to the patient
  • Assessing the patient based on the wellness model
  • Creating and using interventions to facilitate or increase wellness
  • Evaluating the patient’s progress and repeating steps two, three and four as needed

Social work, on the other hand, uses many different practice models and theories depending on the situation at hand. Some notable social work theories and models include: 

  • Social learning theory. A theory that examines how external and cognitive experiences and factors influence human behavior and development. 
  • Psychosocial theory. A theory explaining that each person should experience eight different life phases that target specific developmental outcomes.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapeutic method that helps patients change unhelpful or unproductive thought patterns. 
  • Crisis intervention model. A multi-stage model that outlines how to mitigate different types of crises.
  • Problem solving. A model in which social workers help their clients apply problem solving methods by separating interconnected problems into manageable segments. 

Education requirements for these positions can also vary widely. For example, aspiring mental health counselors must complete an advanced degree in a related field, such as an online master’s in counseling, and apply for licensure in the state they want to practice. Aspiring mental health counselors also need to complete a certain amount of supervised clinical experience. The majority of states require 2000 and 3000 hours of supervised experience, including face-to-face supervision hours.

Social workers, however, can often apply for entry-level jobs after completing a baccalaureate degree. Licensing requirements for social workers vary by state.

Earn an Advanced Degree in Counseling and Become a Mental Health Counselor

Professionals interested in providing support aimed at helping students, individuals and families overcome a variety of mental health challenges must begin by developing the skills they’ll need to make an impact. The curriculum of Walsh University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program includes courses such as family counseling, cultures and counseling and advanced counseling skills and crisis management that have been designed to prepare graduates to provide counseling services in a supportive environment. 

Are you ready to take the next step toward your goal of becoming a mental health counselor? Discover how the online Master of Arts in Counseling from Walsh University can help you make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Recommended Readings
The Top Three Counseling Professions
How Has Technology Changed Counseling
Clinical Mental Health Counselor: Is This Career for You?