What is the Difference Between a Mental Health Counselor and a Social Worker?

While some areas of their day-to-day environment might overlap, there are definite differences between a mental health counselor and a social worker. Basically, the mental health counselor focuses mainly on the area related to psychological issues and the social worker has a broader field to work with, including such issues as government assistance and protective services.


The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics states anyone looking for a career as a social worker must have a bachelor’s degree in either social work or a related field as the minimum educational requirement. Individuals interested in making social work as a career might focus their attention on the various programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

In order to become a mental health counselor, it’s necessary to engage in a more rigorous educational program. The steps to becoming a counselor go from obtaining a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree, and ending with going into a doctorate program. The additional education is needed in order to deal with so many sensitive issues relating to mental health.

Licensing and Certifications

For social workers, there are clinical and nonclinical levels. At the clinical level, in order to get a license, the individual need a master’s degree in social work and at least two years of clinical experience (under the supervision of a licensed clinical level social worker). This is followed by passing a clinical exam prior to the license being issued.

While all states require a master’s degree in order to become a licensed mental health counselor, different states have other requirements. Most of the states require the degree program graduated from to be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling.

Daily Experiences

One finds some substantively different daily experiences when dealing with social workers and mental health counselors. Some social workers spend their mornings helping families get on federal housing programs, for example, while mental health counselors might be helping individuals and families deal with the fallout from substance abuse issues. While both social workers and mental health counselors work diligently to improve the lives of their clients, the mental health counselors focus more intently upon issues dealing with mental health, while the social workers are often engaged in more intensive bureaucratic issues.

Changing Landscape

An article in Forbes revealed over 66 percent of employers reveals absenteeism and tardiness rates were the result of mental health and substance abuse problems. Businesses are understanding the need for mental health counselors to work with them in order to create a working environment where employees are able to be both productive and to get much-needed help in dealing with the challenges facing them.

Businesses are also working with social workers, according to an article in The Guardian, to help businesses gain a better relationship with the communities they serve. Since many social workers are skilled as dealing with issues such as motivational techniques and interpersonal challenges, businesses are taking advantage of those skills when looking to expand their workforce pools.

Related Resource: Top 10 Affordable Master of Social Work Online (MSW) Degrees

While both mental health counselors and social workers use their skill sets in order to generate the best possible workplace environment for their clients, the mental health counselors require more rigorous training, while the social workers focus more upon both bureaucratic and real-world social issues.