What Are the Differences Between a Clinical Social Worker and a Counselor?
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Reviewed by: Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Clinical social workers and counselors perform very similar roles, both making a difference in people’s lives by providing emotional and mental guidance. While counselors focus on improving their clients’ mental health through counseling sessions, clinical social workers often provide a combination of therapy and assistance accessing community resources.
Additionally, the paths to becoming a clinical social worker or mental health counselor differ. These professionals must complete two different educational tracks, apply for credentials specific to their role, and meet distinct work experience requirements.
This page provides details about the differences between clinical social workers and counselors, from the specific educational paths for each role to the variations between the jobs.
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Roles and Responsibility Differences
Clinical social workers work with people in need of help or support. They may work for government agencies, mental health clinics, human services agencies, schools, hospitals, or settlement houses, among other places.
Essentially, these professionals provide assistance to people experiencing difficult circumstances. They might connect clients with hospice care or employment offices, for example. While all social workers counsel clients, licensed clinical social workers are also able to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders in their clients in a private practice setting similar to individuals with counseling degrees.
In contrast, counselors generally provide their clients with guidance for mental, behavioral, and emotional health. They don’t take on the same community-related responsibilities as clinical social workers, their focus remains on counseling services.
Counselors can work within several different specializations, typically corresponding to their work environment. Depending on their specialization, they might find employment in schools, outpatient mental health facilities, residential addiction facilities, and hospitals.
Specializations help counselors provide focused support to their clients, depending on their clients’ needs. A substance abuse counselor provides support to people with addictions. A mental health counselor addresses issues like anxiety and depression. A school counselor helps younger kids with schoolwork and older students with career and college decisions.
Salary and Employment Differences
Salaries and employment options vary not only between the two professions, but also within each, dependent on location, industry, and chosen work environment.
Salary ranges vary between counselors based on their area of focus. Substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral disorder counselors earn a median income of about $46,240, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Data from the BLS also shows that marriage and family therapists make median annual earnings of $49,510, while school and career counselors bring home a median annual pay of $57,040.
The industry in which these professionals work makes a difference as well. Counselors employed by the government tend to earn higher salaries. Marriage and family therapists employed by state government agencies earn median annual wages of $72,230, and government-employed mental health counselors make a median salary of $52,720.
In comparison, clinical social workers make a median annual salary of $50,470, according to the BLS. Social workers who work for ambulatory healthcare services and local government agencies generally earn above this figure, with median salaries of $51,290 and $55,500, respectively. In a 2018 survey from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a third of social workers believed that their compensation was inadequate, although generally wages increase with more work experience.
The job outlook for both of these fields looks optimistic. The BLS projects the social work profession could grow by 11% from 2018 to 2028. In that same time frame, the number of school and career counselors is projected to increase by 8%, while the number of mental health and marriage and family therapists is projected to increase by 22%.
How to Become a Clinical Social Worker
The great majority — four out of five — of master of social work (MSW) graduates plan to become licensed clinical social workers, according to a 2018 CSWE workforce survey.
However, candidates must first earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). BSW degrees generally last four years for full-time students, and graduates can find jobs as case workers. Many go on to enroll in MSW programs, which last about two years. Students choose a concentration during their graduate program. The CSWE survey found that over a third of MSW degree-seekers chose mental health/behavioral health as their concentration.
Clinical social workers also need to complete supervised work experience, such as a practicum or internship. In total, they need a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience after graduating in order to apply for licensure.
How to Become a Counselor
Like social workers, counselors generally require a master’s degree, specific to their intended field of focus. School counselors complete a master’s in school counseling, marriage and family therapists study psychology or couples counseling, and mental health counselors may study psychology or a specialized counseling field.
Master’s degrees in counseling typically take two years for full-time students to complete, after completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree. Students can also find more flexible or accelerated pathways through online counseling programs. In addition to a master’s degree, aspiring counselors must complete anywhere from 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work to earn licensure.
In some cases, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors can find employment with a bachelor’s degree. However, that depends on state licensure requirements.
Licensing Requirements for Clinical Social Workers and Counselors
When it comes to earning the proper clinical social worker and counselor credentials, specific licensure requirements vary by state. Still, states share some common guidelines that can help you know what to expect from the application process.
Counselors can apply for several different types of licensure: licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), and licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC). Each typically requires a master’s degree and a certain number of supervised work experience hours. For specific counseling requirements, check with your state licensing board.
To earn licensure as a clinical social worker, candidates must earn an MSW and participate in at least two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work.
Certification Options for Clinical Social Workers and Counselors
While states generally do not require board certification in addition to licensure for counselors and clinical social workers, many professionals decide to obtain a certification credential. Certification can offer added benefits, like additional training and supervision.
Social workers can obtain certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which offers various specialty certifications. In order to maintain their certification, professionals need to participate in continuing education throughout their careers.
Counselors can earn the national certified counselor (NCC) credential from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).
Certification Requirements for National Certified Counselors
Many of the requirements to earn NCC certification match up with counselor licensure guidelines. In addition to holding a master’s degree and completing 3,000 hours of postgraduate counseling experience, candidates need a professional endorsement. They must also pass either the National Counselor Examination or the National Mental Health Counseling Examination.
Counselors can also earn specialty certifications through the NBCC in clinical mental health counseling and school counseling.
One of the main advantages of earning this credential involves the supplemental endorsement of working as a board-certified counselor. Certified counselors can take advantage of other benefits, including access to professional publications and free continuing education opportunities.
Certification Requirements for Certified Social Workers
Like certified counselors, certified social workers can benefit from this board-granted credential, gaining access to employment and education opportunities.
To apply for NASW certification, candidates need an MSW and two years of postgraduate experience overseen by a credentialed supervisor. They should also submit professional evaluations from their supervisor and colleagues, participate in 20 hours of continuing education, and possess NASW membership.
Social workers can earn several different types of certification, depending on their specialty. They can work towards credentials concentrating on addiction, case management, education, gerontology, healthcare, hospice work, the military, and youth and family therapy.
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Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty working with helping professionals. Melissa has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Melissa practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Melissa is a professor imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to future social workers in a graduate program through Simmons University online.
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