Roughly one in five U.S. adults — more than 50 million people — struggled with mental health challenges in 2019–2020, according to a 2023 report from nonprofit organization Mental Health America (MHA). Approximately 55% of those individuals don’t receive treatment, largely due to a lack of access to mental health care.
Social workers and counselors are crucial mental health providers, supporting individuals struggling with mental and behavioral health disorders to help them improve their quality of life. However, despite a shared focus on helping people cope with these challenges, the roles of social workers and counselors are not identical.
Differences between the two careers range from the scope of work to the education required. Social workers who want to advance in their careers, for example, generally pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, while counselors typically hold degrees in psychology or counseling.
Comparing the roles of social workers vs. counselors can help individuals determine which professional path is right for them.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Social workers help individuals, families, and groups navigate issues such as:
- Legal problems
- Health care access
- Child adoption
- Substance misuse
- Mental health concerns
While social workers often interact directly with clients to provide support, these professionals also advocate for policies and programs that offer long-term solutions to challenges facing society. Among those issues are:
- Voting rights
- Criminal justice
- Economic equality
Social Worker Responsibilities
Social workers identify and work with people and communities in need of assistance. They support clients by:
- Determining clients’ needs
- Assessing the availability of individuals, organizations, and services to assist them
- Coordinating assistance for clients through support networks and agencies
- Monitoring clients’ progress in navigating challenges
A social worker’s role also typically entails advocacy. These professionals lead efforts to raise awareness of social justice issues, sometimes working with community organizations and policymakers to help improve social conditions.
Clinical Social Worker Roles
Advanced-level social workers, who hold master’s degrees and state licenses, also may diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Known as clinical social workers, these professionals work autonomously or in collaboration with physicians and other health care providers to:
- Provide individual, couples, family, and group therapy and counseling
- Create plans for changing behaviors or coping with challenges
- Refer clients to services and programs, such as support groups
Social Worker Specializations
Social workers may specialize in working with certain populations. Some examples of social work specializations are:
- Psychiatric social worker — Works with clients who have severe forms of mental illness
- Health care social worker — Assists clients as they cope with or recover from illness or injury
- School social worker — Develops plans to help students improve their academic and social development
- Child and family social worker — Helps ensure families and children can meet their needs in areas such as housing or financial support
Social Worker Employers
Social work professionals work in a variety of locations and settings, depending on which communities they serve. Social worker employers include:
- Schools and colleges
- Military and veterans services facilities
- Nonprofit organizations
- Health clinics
What Does a Counselor Do?
Like social workers, counselors support people coping with life challenges. Their work often focuses on providing guidance to people with emotional, mental, physical, or developmental issues. Depending on their area of specialization, counselors also can provide other types of support, such as assistance with planning for a career or living with a disability.
Counselors offer services such as therapy and guidance. They sometimes coordinate care with other professionals, but more frequently work directly with individuals or groups. Although specific tasks vary according to their scope of work, the responsibilities of counselors can include:
- Assessing and diagnosing mental health disorders
- Designing treatment plans
- Providing assistance such as psychotherapy, substance use counseling, and rehabilitation
- Helping people develop social and coping skills
Counselors generally specialize in working with a certain population, addressing that group’s unique conditions and needs. Among the types of counselors are:
- Mental health counselor — Provides support to people in mental and emotional distress
- Rehabilitation counselor — Helps people with physical, mental, emotional, or developmental disabilities live independently
- School counselor — Assists students in overcoming social and behavioral challenges and improving academic performance
- Career counselor — Guides students and other clients in selecting and preparing for a career
Counselors, like social workers, may work in various environments. Among those that employ counselors are:
- Schools and universities
- Senior centers
- Military and veterans services facilities
- Nonprofit organizations
Social Work vs. Counseling
The distinctions between social work and counseling center on characteristics such as the type of care and support they provide, the scope and focus of their work, and the preparation required for each role.
Type of Care
Social work and counseling differ in the type of care they specialize in.
Social work emphasizes helping vulnerable people access the support they need — from unemployment assistance to health care services — to improve their lives. The primary role of counselors, on the other hand, is to provide therapy to those battling mental health issues, like depression or anxiety.
Scope of Work
While counselors generally focus their work on providing therapeutic care directly to individuals or groups, the scope of social workers’ responsibilities often extends to advocacy efforts.
Social work is rooted in social change; the broad basis of their work includes efforts to effect change on behalf of their clients and ensure equal access to local, state, and federal resources and opportunities to improve people’s well-being.
Social workers and counselors earned median annual salaries in 2021 that often exceeded the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Specific salaries can vary by area of specialization.
Social Worker Salaries
A social worker’s median annual salary was $50,390 in May 2021, the BLS reports. Salary information provided by the BLS for areas of specialization includes:
- Mental health and substance abuse — $49,130
- Health care — $60,840
- Child, family, and school — $49,150
- All other — $61,190
These salaries are above the median annual salary for all professions the BLS tracks, which was $45,760 in May 2021.
The BLS tracks counselor salaries for those specializing in rehabilitation; school and career; and substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling. Those salaries were as follows in May 2021:
- Rehabilitation — $38,560
- School and career — $60,510
- Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health — $48,520
Education and Licensing
The education and licensing requirements for social workers and counselors differ as well.
Social Worker Education and Licensing
The education requirement for entry-level social workers often is a bachelor’s degree in social work, but progressing to the clinical level requires a master’s degree (MSW). Students interested in pursuing an MSW don’t have to hold a BSW; these students may pursue programs that offer foundational social work education in addition to advanced courses.
Clinical social workers also must hold a state license. While licensure requirements vary by state, they generally call for an MSW degree as well as years of supervised training and work experience. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker also typically requires passing a state board exam.
Counselor Education and Licensing
Counselors typically need to have a master’s or doctoral degree, although the field of study can vary according to the area of specialization. For example, mental health counselors generally study mental health counseling, while school and career counselors often study psychology or counseling.
Like clinical social workers, most counselors need to hold a state-issued credential to practice. As with their education, however, state credentials for counselors vary according to the focus of their practice.
- Mental health counselors generally must hold a graduate degree and gain clinical experience for licensure. They also need to pass a nationally-recognized exam. Additional certifications are available, which allow mental health counselors to focus on areas such as addiction or grief.
- Rehabilitation counselors also must hold a state license, although licensing varies by state and the type of rehabilitative services provided. A master’s degree, supervised clinical experience, and state-recognized testing also are part of this licensing. Some rehabilitation counselors earn national certification as well; this credential has experience and exam requirements.
- School counselors must hold state credentials that, depending on the location, may be called licensing, certification, or an endorsement. A master’s degree in school counseling, an internship or practicum, and testing are typical requirements. Some school counselors must have teaching experience as well.
- Career counselors are often employed by organizations that require a master’s degree in counseling with a focus on career development, including field experience. Not all states require state licensure.
Make a Difference in Your Career and in the Lives of Others
Both social workers and counselors can make a difference in their communities and in the lives of individuals by providing critical assistance to those dealing with life’s hardships — and social work also incorporates advocacy into these efforts. If you’re ready to advance in a career focused on caring for others and advocating for change, explore the Regis College online Master of Social Work program.
Whether your bachelor’s degree is in social work or a different discipline, the program can prepare you for a fulfilling career as a clinical social worker. Discover how the Regis College online MSW program can help you achieve your goal of supporting vulnerable people in need.
How the MSW Prepares You for Clinical Social Work
The Importance of Mental Health Social Work
Important Social Worker Skills
American Counseling Association, “What Is Professional Counseling?”
Indeed, “How to Become a Mental Health Counselor in 5 Steps”
Indeed, “Social Worker vs. Counselor: What’s the Difference?”
Mental Health America, The State of Mental Health in America
National Association of Social Workers, Advocacy
National Association of Social Workers, Social Justice
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Counselors, All Other
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rehabilitation Counselors
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselor and Advisors