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What Are the Differences Between a Clinical Social Worker and a Counselor?

If you're considering a career in counseling, you may wonder what educational and career path is right for you. Both counseling and clinical social work are rewarding occupations that allow the practitioner to help people cope with emotional and psychological problems they are facing. Both professions require an advanced education, the right state-mandated credentials and a compassionate, communicative nature. However, despite their many similarities, these are two separate job descriptions within the field of mental health, and they require aspiring professionals to take different paths to earning an education, attaining relevant work experience and obtaining a license.

Similarities between Counselors and Social Workers

The goal of mental health professionals, whether counselors or clinical social workers, is generally the same: to help people deal with problems in their lives. Through psychotherapy, counselors and clinical social workers help patients talk through their problems and develop the coping strategies they need to deal with or resolve psychological and emotional issues. To obtain a position in either one of these fields, you will have to invest your time and money in earning a graduate-level education. Both types of mental health professionals may work with patients from various backgrounds. Counselors and clinical social workers find employment in many types of settings, such as hospitals and private practices.

Key Differences

Job titles are the most obvious difference between counselors and social workers. The official title for counselors is licensed mental health counselor, school counselor or family counselor. For social workers who work in this capacity, the official title is licensed clinical social worker. Counselors, of course, all counsel patients. However, not all social workers are clinical social workers, working in the field of mental health. Clinical social workers provide counseling in addition to help accessing social services.

While both mental health counselors and clinical social workers must earn a master's level degree, their educational paths will differ. At the master's level, counseling degree programs prepare students to identify disorders, administer psychotherapy and understand the emotional and psychological ramifications of troubled relationships and stressful situations. Clinical social workers must earn a master's degree in social work (MSW) from a two-year program that includes training in clinical assessments, coursework in case management and a hands-on experience requirement, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mental health counselors also earn slightly more money per counseling session than clinical social workers, according to the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

Though clinical social workers develop the skills to provide psychotherapy, their job duties differ slightly from counselors. They may be less likely to offer services such as crisis management. Instead, they are more likely to help patients or clients locate resources they can use to change their own circumstances, rather than simply changing their own ways of coping with problems. Despite the distinctions in educational preparation courses and career perspectives, both clinical social workers and counselors enjoy the opportunity to make a real difference in clients' lives.


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