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How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

Gain the skills and knowledge you need to help individuals improve their lives.

If you’ve been thinking about a career in mental health, you may have noticed it’s not always easy to determine who does what. There seems to be no end of job titles: clinical social worker, therapist, licensed clinical social worker, clinical psychologist, counselor. Trying to make sense of them is enough to leave the best of us puzzled. While you may know you want to help people deal with life challenges, you might be unsure how to do it.

Different Philosophies, Same Goal

A source of confusion for many is understanding the difference between clinical psychologists and clinical social workers. On the surface both seem to do the same job, working with individuals and groups to help them address their life challenges in a therapeutic environment. Both require their practitioners to have advanced degrees in their field (an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling or Master of Social Work, respectively). Both require state licensure. So, what’s the difference?

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

Basically, it comes down to differences in treatment philosophies that can be traced back to the history of these professions.

Clinical psychology had its start at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896 with the founding of the first psychological clinic by professor Lightner Witmer.1 Initially his lab focused on the assessment and treatment of children with learning disabilities, using established psychological methods to understand mental function and initiate behavioral change.2

Today, clinical psychologists continue to focus on the patient as an individual. They work to diagnose disorders, administer psychotherapy, and help to improve the mental and emotional well-being of others.

Clinical social work, on the other hand, was born out of the social progressive movements of the late 19th century.3 These movements were a response to the growing problem of poverty, primarily in urban areas, brought about by the Industrial Revolution. While social workers interacted with individuals in their daily practice, the focus of social work was to address larger social and systemic problems as a way to help individuals. In short, clinical social workers help individuals access the resources they need to change their situation or environment.

Where Do Clinical Social Workers Work?

Clinical social workers can practice in a variety of settings. They can work at a hospital as part of a larger mental healthcare team alongside psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and other healthcare professionals. They sometimes go into private practice, providing care to individuals, couples, and families. They may also work in nursing homes, social services agencies, schools, or nonprofit community organizations. Wherever there are people who need help with life challenges, relationships, and social justice issues such as poverty, hunger, or substance abuse, you’ll probably find a clinical social worker.

Becoming a Clinical Social Worker

Though the path to a career as a clinical social worker is relatively straightforward, it requires significant effort and commitment. In order to enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you must hold a bachelor’s degree. Many programs will accept any bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.

Most MSW programs can take two years of full-time study, either in a traditional classroom setting or online. However, if you already have a Bachelor of Social Work, many schools—including Walden—offer an accelerated option that allows you to complete your MSW degree sooner.

Online degree programs are designed for working professionals. These programs allow you to take as few as one or two courses per semester. While it may take you longer to graduate than if you were enrolled in a full-time program, there are benefits. Namely, you’ll be able to keep your job (and your income). It may also allow you to take advantage of your employer’s tuition reimbursement benefits.

To ensure the quality and rigor of the education, any MSW program you consider should be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). To practice independently as a clinical social worker in the United States, you must be licensed by the state where you intend to practice. CSWE is the sole accrediting body for social work programs in the U.S.; however, it’s a good idea to check with your state licensure board for details before enrolling in any program.

Once you’ve completed the license requirements for your state, you’ll be able to take the exam and apply to receive your license. Then, you can proudly add LCSW to the end of your name.

Explore Walden University’s online CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work program and specialized certificate programs that fit your career goals. Earn your degree in a flexible, convenient online format that fits your schedule and your life.


1 Source: www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/history/history.htm
2 Source: www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/history/witmertext.htm
3 Source: www.socialworkers.org/News/Facts/Social-Work-History

Walden University’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is responsible for developing standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.

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