What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

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A mental health social worker listens to a client.Mental health concerns are incredibly common, affecting a significant portion of the U.S. population. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, within any given year approximately one in five adults experiences a condition like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among youth, ages 6 through 17, the figures are similar, with about one out of every six facing a mental illness each year.

Such statistics underscore the importance of having qualified professionals who can provide assistance to those who live with mental illness. Mental health social workers help fulfill this role. These professionals can help individuals manage mental health concerns in various ways and often collaborate with psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists.

For those with a passion for this field and formal training in social work, a career as a mental health social worker offers the opportunity to make a positive impact.

What Is Mental Health Social Work?

The term “social work” is broad, encompassing many forms of assistance to individuals, families, or groups as they seek to cope with day-to-day problems. Mental health social work focuses on issues related to mental, emotional, or behavioral health.

Specifically, mental health social workers are trained and licensed to treat individuals experiencing a mental illness or substance use disorder and help connect them with community services or other resources to assist in their recovery. Those who do mental health social work may collaborate with other mental health professionals and care providers to design and implement the most effective treatment for their clients.

Typically, mental health social workers are based in traditional office settings, but may visit clients in their homes or in long-term care and rehabilitation facilities.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

While the core duties of a mental health social worker can vary from one position to the next — depending on where they’re employed and the type of facility they work in — there are a few common responsibilities associated with mental health and substance abuse social work.

Identifying Those in Need

One of the core functions of a social worker is to identify individuals, groups, or communities who are in need of support, including those who have mental health concerns and have not been connected with the appropriate resources.

Assessing Client Needs

Every struggle with mental illness is different. While some patients may simply need some therapeutic tools to help them cope with day-to-day challenges, others may need to be connected with talk therapists or psychiatrists. Some may even benefit from inpatient or outpatient care. Social workers are tasked with evaluating the needs of each client.

Helping Clients Adjust to Change

Big changes, including breakups, deaths, loss of employment, or the birth of a child, can all be hard to process. A mental health disorder only compounds this difficulty. Mental health social workers may supply strategies and resources to help their clients adapt. Change management is a crucial skill for mental health social workers.

Researching Social Services

One of the primary responsibilities of social work is ensuring that clients have knowledge of and access to any community resources that might help them, whether that’s a community clinic, a transportation service, or a job placement service. Social workers can research and determine which services are best suited to meet their clients’ needs.

The Role of Licensed Clinical Social Workers

While mental health social workers are not required to become licensed clinical social workers, many do pursue licensure, enabling them to seek loftier roles, command higher salary ranges, and play a more direct role in addressing their clients’ mental health concerns. Specifically, their advanced education and training qualify them to engage in more clinical interventions for mental health concerns, including diagnosis and treatment.

What Is the Typical Mental Health Social Worker Salary?

The median annual salary for a social worker was $50,390 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Mental health and substance abuse social workers earned $49,130 during the same period. Additionally, Payscale reports that the median annual salary for a licensed clinical social worker was approximately $62,000 as of February 2023.

While these figures provide a baseline, a mental health social worker’s salary may be affected by several different factors, including their level of education, years of experience, licensure, and geographic location.

BLS data also shows that overall employment of social workers is expected to grow by 9% between 2021 and 2031. Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow by 11% over the same period, adding more than 13,000 new jobs. This aligns with broader trends concerning access to mental health services and greater interest in seeking relief for mental health conditions.

Provide Services and Solutions for People in Need

Statistically speaking, as many as 20% of U.S. adults struggle with diagnosable mental health concerns. Mental health social workers can play a critical role in supporting this population, making a positive impact by helping them overcome daily challenges.

Advanced training is essential to succeed in this profession. Regis College’s online Masters of Social Work can prepare students to play a crucial role in mental health caregiving. Explore how the program can help you pursue this rewarding career path.

Recommended Readings

Is Getting an MSW Worth It?

Master’s in Human Services vs. Master’s in Social Work: What Are the Differences?

LMSW vs. LCSW: Which Is Right For You?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Mental Health

Johns Hopkins Medicine, Psychiatry Social Work

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers

National Association of Social Workers, Behavioral Health

Payscale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers