Social workers and mental health counselors are both master's level mental health professionals. They work with people in their environments, helping them with, among other things, mental health disorders, problems with living, educational issues and social problems. On the surface, there appears to be little difference between the two professions. But when you take a look at the educational requirements and the fields these professionals work in, there are slight, yet distinct differences.
Education for Clinical Social Workers
A clinical social worker, by definition, is a master's level social worker (MSW) who has passed a clinical-licensing exam to earn a state license and has completed a supervised, post-masters client-contact requirement of approximately 3,000 hours. Each state has different guidelines for the number of client hours required to obtain the clinical license. MSW programs are based on a core-competency approach. Emphasis is placed on the student's competency as a social worker as opposed to competency as a student.
According to the Council on Social Work Education, the accrediting institute for social work education, "These competencies include such activities as identify as a professional social worker, application of ethical principles to guide professional practice, application of critical thinking, engage diversity and difference in practice, advance human rights and social and economic justice, engage in research informed practice and practice informed research, apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, engage in policy practice, attend to contexts, and engage, assess, intervene and evaluate with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities."
Education for Mental Health Counselors
Mental health counselors also must have a master's degree in counseling, must pass a state or national licensing exam and must complete a minimum of two years post-graduate clinical work supervised by a licensed mental health professional. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), mental health counselors are trained in, "Diagnosis and psychopathology, psychotherapy, psychological testing and assessment, professional orientation, research and program evaluation, group counseling, human growth and development, counseling theory, social and cultural foundations, lifestyle and career development and supervised practicum and internship."
Overview of MSW Career
Social workers are expected to adhere to a standard of core social work values, principles and practice. Social workers serve in a variety of capacities in a variety of settings, providing services such as helping people obtain services; providing therapy to individuals, couples, families and groups; helping groups or communities make social and health services available to others or expand upon those services; and participating in the legislative process.
Overview of MHC Career
Mental health counselors also provide a variety of services in a variety of settings. Principally, MHCs provide assessment and diagnosis, treatment planning, short- and long-term therapy, crisis intervention, and prevention and psychoeducation programs.
Differences between MSWs & MHCs
According to curriculum guidelines stated above, there does not appear to be a significant difference between a master's in social work degree and a mental health counselor degree. Educational programs, however, differ from school to school. Among MSW programs, for instance, some programs place emphasis on management. The goal of the program is to prepare students to become managers or directors of mental health programs. Then there are programs, on the other hand, that place emphasis on the clinical practice of social work. Internships are tailored to having face-to-face client contact. These programs prepare students to work directly with people, rather than managing the programs that help people.
Depending on your career aspirations, investigating both MSW degree programs and MHC degree programs will dictate where the emphasis lies within each particular program and will make the differences between the two programs clear.
Mental health counseling was listed on Money Magazine's top 50 best jobs list, ranking 33rd in 2006.