What is Clinical Social Work?
Clinical social workers deal with interpersonal, psychiatric, or familial problems in an ongoing professional relationship with children, adults, couples, families, or groups, sometimes over several years. They work in hospitals, outpatient therapy practices, schools, the courts, and a variety of other settings, often in collaboration with medical and mental health experts. In many cases they are able to diagnose and treat clinical mental health disorders. They are essentially therapists, and in most states they possess licensure beyond the MSW that is dictated by state law.
To be a clinical social worker, you must have an MSW, preferably with a specialization related to mental health and/or substance abuse, developmental disabilities, or marriage and family. Some careers in this field include inpatient psychiatric social workers, addictions specialists, marriage and family therapists, clinical supervisors, and private practitioners.
What Are the Benefits of Specializing in Clinical Social Work?
Having a specialization in clinical social work opens doors to careers previously limited to psychiatrists, psychologists and licensed professional counselors. You may be able to bill insurance independently for your work as a private therapist or may testify as an expert witness in court. Additionally, clinical social workers are often eligible to serve in supervisory capacities. They can hold licenses that allow them to operate their own clinical mental health businesses including group practices. In many cases, they receive higher pay than generalist social workers or other helping professionals doing the same job.
How Does One Become a Clinical Social Work Practitioner?
The process for becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) differs by state, but it most commonly involves specific clinical courses during the MSW program (i.e. Diagnosis and Treatment, Clinical Work with Groups, Marriage and Family Therapy), completing ongoing supervision for a period of time after completing your MSW, and ultimately passing a state board examination. Some states’ requirements are more rigorous than others, with Texas, California, Florida, and New York being notoriously detailed. If you are considering a career as a clinical social worker, be sure to consult your state’s licensure board and your academic advisor to ensure the coursework you choose for your electives or specialization will meet the state’s requirements. You might even consider trying to meet the requirements of the aforementioned more rigorous states, in which case you may be eligible for licensure no matter where in the U.S. you move after graduation, provided you are able to pass the licensure examination. Most importantly, you must ensure your coursework is completed at a CSWE accredited School of Social Work.
Getting a clinical social work license is hard work, but it’s worth it. It opens up a world of careers beyond the generalist social work practice and there are definite financial perks, too. According to U.S. News & World Report, in 2011, clinical social workers made nearly $10,000/year more than mental health counselors and approximately $8,000/year more than their non-clinical peers.
For more information on licensure requirements and fees, visit our state-by-state guide to licensure.