6 Reasons to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker

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Female social worker writing on a notepad, sitting opposite a young, distressed-looking couple on a couch.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about one in every five American adults lives with a mental illness. This is the equivalent of more than 46 million individuals. While many do not have severe disorders, there is a rising need for mental health services in our country.

Those with serious mental illnesses need professionals who can properly diagnose their disorder or illness, provide psychotherapy and support, and help these individuals lead fulfilling lives.

Psychiatric social workers play an important role in mental health services, and are in a unique position to answer this call. As needs for psychiatric treatment and support rise, so too do the employment opportunities for psychiatric social workers.

There are a few key reasons why students involved in a social work degree program, like the online Master of Social Work at Regis College, should consider psychiatric social work as part of their future career goals. This article will examine this professional role and what can make it so rewarding.

Psychiatric social work: A primer

Before we discuss the motivations for students and professionals to consider this specialized type of social work, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the role and how it differs from other types of social work.

As Online MSW Programs directory contributor Kaitlin Louie explained, psychiatric social workers may operate in an array of different employment settings. This includes both inpatient and outpatient psychiatric facilities. Overall, the work these professionals do is incredibly varied.

A psychiatric social worker typically works with clients who have more severe forms of mental illness and may require hospitalization or other more intensive treatments. Although professionals in this role can diagnose mental illnesses, a psychiatric social worker is typically called in to perform therapy after this diagnosis has taken place, SocialWorkLicensure.org, an informational resource for students and professionals, pointed out.

A main part of psychiatric social workers’ jobs is to perform psychosocial assessments and other types of evaluations to get a true picture of what clients are dealing with, as well as to map out the best forms of therapy to help with their needs. This involves speaking with clients, their families, and support networks, as well as any other therapists, physicians, or health care professionals to gather information about the client’s condition, symptoms, etc.

These social workers are well-educated in different therapy strategies and delivery of services and treatments to clients as needed. Psychiatric social workers may also have to engage in crisis intervention during a mental health episode, and may lead group therapy for clients, and potentially their families.

Psychiatric social workers also collaborate with other therapists, psychologists, and mental health and health care workers to develop and provide a treatment plan for clients. And, as Social Work Licensure pointed out, psychiatric social workers may also be the key stakeholder in a client’s discharge process.

“This [discharge plan] is not something that is filled out right before discharge ― it’s an ongoing process during much of the time the person is hospitalized,” the Social Work Licensure article stated. “The goal is ambitious: that the person will have the resources to function optimally within the community.”

In this way, there is a lot riding on the shoulders of psychiatric social workers, and the role they play within mental health and other health care services is an important one.

Now that we have a basic foundation of this role and the type of work these social workers engage in, let’s take a look at a few of the reasons professionals should consider this employment path.

Young couple sitting on a couch across from a professional man.

1. There are different types of roles available to pursue

As Louie explained in the article for the Online MSW Programs directory, psychiatric social work is an umbrella term, as there are different types of social workers who operate in the psychiatric field. This means students with an interest in a particular area of social work can pursue the role that best matches their passions and career goals.

Some social workers are employed in inpatient psychiatric facilities and help clients who have been hospitalized due to a severe form of mental illness, a traumatic incident, or those diagnosed with a mental illness who are also in the criminal justice system. Inpatient social workers may help individuals who have very serious psychological or behavioral issues, including those with substance abuse problems.

There are also psychiatric emergency services and crisis response social workers. The job of these professionals is very demanding, as the majority of their clients are currently in the midst of a mental health or other type of emotional crisis. Such individuals may be a danger to themselves or others, and it is the responsibility of the psychiatric social worker to assess the root of the crisis and recommend care and treatment, including potential hospitalization. Psychiatric social workers in this role usually spend a shorter amount of time with clients, as their work takes place during the actual crisis situation. Afterward, the social worker directs these individuals to an inpatient facility or another type of psychiatric care facility so they can receive the support resources and treatments they need.

Finally, there are also psychiatric social workers who operate within outpatient facilities. These professionals work with clients who have less severe mental issues, and are at a lower risk of requiring hospitalization. These patients are still categorized among those with severe mental illness, but for many, the outpatient facility is the next step after inpatient hospitalization.

2. Demand is rising for psychiatric social work professionals

As mentioned previously, about 46 million adults in the U.S. have a form of mental illness, including severe and less serious disorders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for professional social workers is increasing much faster than the average growth seen with other occupations. Overall, the BLS forecasts an 11% rise in the job outlook for social workers, with more than 80,000 positions becoming available from 2018 to 2028.

While this job outlook includes clinical social workers, mental health and substance abuse social workers, child and family social workers, and school social workers, the need for trained professionals in these areas is still an important opportunity. On the other hand, the BLS predicts a 22% increase in the job outlook for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. Although counselors and social workers are not the same, this is a highly similar role. In this way, employment growth for mental health counselors may provide a more accurate picture of the need for trained social workers who can help individuals with substance abuse problems and mental illness.

3. Assist highly vulnerable individuals

The clients psychiatric social workers work with are among the most at-risk and vulnerable sections of the population. As noted, these individuals usually have very serious mental illnesses, including trauma from an abusive situation, psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression, or psychological episodes.

In the case of psychiatric emergency services and crisis response social workers, these professionals not only deal with vulnerable individuals, but often see these people during a crisis or mental health episode. For many patients in these situations, this crisis represents a severe low point in their lives, and they rely on crisis response social workers to help them through the episode and transition to more comprehensive and long-term care.

Overall, the prospect of providing therapy and assistance for those who need it most is what draws many professionals to this area of social work.

“It is extremely rewarding to offer these people help in their time of need,” Hillary Paffenroth, psychiatric social worker at San Francisco’s Comprehensive Crisis Services, told the Online MSW Program directory. “Family, friends, and providers are often profusely thankful and tell us that they do not know what they would have done without our help.”

4. Help direct health care and mental health services

Psychiatric social workers are in a unique position to ensure that clients can get the health care and mental health services they need, and that these resources best align with the client’s particular diagnosis.

As part of their work, these professionals commonly perform mental health assessments, which are then used to help direct care delivery. Depending on what psychiatric social workers determine during these assessments, clients can be referred to an inpatient facility, put on a psychiatric hold if they are a danger to themselves or others, or discharged for outpatient care.

“[I]t is clear that the impact of our service goes beyond just helping the client get to the hospital,” Paffenroth said. “We can start someone on the road to help and recovery in a way that most other providers cannot. That makes my job pretty special.”

5. Be an advocate for those in the criminal justice system

In addition to helping direct the delivery of health care and mental health services, psychiatric social workers can also be an advocate for clients who deal with criminal justice issues.

Social Work Licensure explained that if a client is involved in a legal dispute or has been charged with a criminal act, the psychiatric social worker may help gather information related to their case. They can also support the individual and help ensure fair justice.

6. Contribute to a better society

A main objective for psychiatric social workers is to help their clients transition from a mental health or crisis episode back to traditional society. This transition may require hospitalization and certain treatment strategies, but psychiatric social workers help provide their clients with the social skills, coping methods, and other support resources that they need to lead fulfilling lives outside of a treatment facility.

Becoming a psychiatric social worker

This area of social work is more specialized in nature, and while some entry-level general social work positions may only require a bachelor’s degree, those interested in psychiatric social work will need a master’s degree.

A program like online Masters of Social Work specializes in clinical social work, and so will provide students with the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to succeed in clinical social work, including psychiatric social work. Students learn approaches to assist individuals, families and groups. And Regis College’s online MSW helps prepare students for the required Licensed Clinical Social Work exam.

To find out more, check out our program website and reach out to one of our enrollment advisors today.


Recommended Readings:

Creating a Sense of Community in the Online MSW Program

Skills and Characteristics of Successful Social Workers 



National Institute of Mental Health – Mental Illness

Social Work Licensure – What is a Psychiatric Social Worker? | Mental Health Social Work Education and Resources

Online MSW Programs – Introductory Guide to Psychiatric Social Work

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Substance Abuse Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Social Workers

Regis College Online MSW