Psychiatric Social Workers and How to Become One

Psychiatric social workers provide mental health services to individuals with high needs. They may perform psychotherapy and even diagnose mental illness.

Duties vary according to work setting. Social workers in inpatient settings often have primary responsibility for putting together the discharge plan. This 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 goal is ambitious: that the person will have the resources to function optimally within the community. Hospital stays are shorter than they were in the past, but patients sometimes need to transition to a residential care center or a day program.

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Social workers who are employed at psychiatric hospitals also do psychosocial assessments and provide therapy. They are in frequent contact with the family members of patients. They meet with other members of the mental health team (psychiatrists, nurse practitioners etc.) to discuss patient care. If the patient is involved in any legal procedures, the social worker may have a role in information gathering.

Psychiatric social workers may also be employed in outpatient centers, working with juveniles and adults. They perform psychotherapy and assessments, educate the patient and his or her family, and make referrals as necessary. Mental health therapies include more than just talk. Social workers may, for example, employ Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with young trauma survivors.

Master’s level social workers serve as case managers for individuals who have severe needs, those who may require periodic hospitalization as well as intensive use of community resources. Clients may include those with schizophrenia and those with complex sets of co-occurring conditions.

Governmental agencies and residential care facilities are among the other employment options for psychiatric social workers. Some eventually go into private practice as psychotherapists.

Education Requirements for Psychiatric Social Workers

Although bachelor’s level social workers may provide some services, they will not do psychotherapy; psychiatric social work is a master’s level profession. Those interested in this career should enroll in social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Ideally, they will select programs with a clinical focus and a clinical fieldwork experience – the state may or may not make clinical focus a formal requirement for the highest level of licensing. There are typically many opportunities for specialization in the second year of a master’s program.

Fordham University's top-ranked School of Social Work offers an online MSW program that prepares students for relevant, integrated practice with all populations. GRE scores not required.

Capella University is now offering an online Master of Social Work that is in CSWE candidacy status. The MSW program helps prepare students to enter the general or clinical practice role (in most states). Capella also offers an online Doctor of Social Work.

Most states have a continuing education requirement. Professional organizations like the National Association of Social Workers and the Society for Clinical Social Work serve as resources. So do colleges and universities. Some offer post-master certificate programs in areas like mental health. It is also an option to take academic coursework that relates to one’s practice.

Licensing and Certification

All U.S. jurisdictions license master’s level social workers. The highest level of licensing is dependent on supervised work experience attained over a period of about two to three years. During this time, the prospective social worker will be working in a mental health setting. Many states tie licensing level or category to duties performed during this time period. However, it’s not necessarily a requirement to have the highest license if one works in an agency setting under others’ supervision.

Some social workers pursue additional voluntary certification to demonstrate their mental health expertise. They might opt for Qualified Clinical Social Worker or Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager, depending on practice area.

Career Outlook for Mental Health Social Workers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that mental health/ substance abuse social workers employed in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals had a mean wage of $48,960 in 2011. There were 10,800 employed in such settings. Social workers in outpatient care averaged $42,220. The overall employment here was higher: 23,050.

The BLS projected 31% growth in jobs for mental health social workers over the course of the 2010 to 2020 decade.