Social Worker: Your Counselor & Personal Advocate

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What is a social worker?

A social worker specializes in helping individuals, couples, families and groups tackle many kinds of problems and situations. Social workers work within the context of a person’s environment and life situation. They help people cope with and overcome the challenges of psychological problems, serious illnesses, social and economic problems, life crises and transitions, and difficulties in school, work and relationships. 

There are two general types of social workers, direct-service social workers and clinical social workers. Clinical social workers are healthcare professionals who diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. A clinical social worker is also known as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

In contrast, direct-service social workers do not diagnose or treat disorders, but work to help people with an illness or otherwise difficult situation cope and achieve their goals. Direct-service social workers identify a client’s needs, strengths, goals and challenges; make plans to help a client improve coping skills and quality of life; and follow up with clients to assess their progress and the effectiveness of plans. A direct-service social worker may be known as a licensed social worker (LSW) in states that require licensure.

The practice of a social worker varies depending on if he or she is a direct-service social worker or a clinical social worker, his or her education and specialty, and the type of setting and client. In general, a social worker may:

  • Assess a client’s needs, challenges, support systems, and resources

  • Identify or diagnose mental and emotional disorders and life challenges. A LCSW diagnoses and treats mental, emotional and behavioral disorders with therapy.

  • Develop treatment or action plans to help clients, and re-evaluate and modify plans as needed

  • Help a client access needed resources and organizations

  • Advocate for a client

  • Provide individual, group, family, and couples or marriage counseling

  • Teach and support strategies for behavior changes, coping skills, and therapeutic techniques, such as breathing techniques and the use of visual imagery

  • Collaborate, refer and consult with other professionals, such as psychiatrists, teachers and psychologists

  • Maintain strict patient confidentiality, unless patients are at risk of hurting themselves or others or the provider has a legal obligation to share information

  • Commit patients involuntarily in emergency situations

Social workers may also be known by the following names: direct-service social worker, licensed social worker (LSW), clinical social worker, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), child social worker, therapist, or counselor.

Who should see a social worker?

Anyone who would like help overcoming personal challenges and feeling more satisfied in life may benefit from seeing a social worker. Social workers provide their clients with skills to help them cope with psychological illnesses, difficult experiences, and major life challenges and transitions. If you have an issue or concern that you would like to work through, a social worker may be able to help.

Consider seeing an experienced social worker if you would like help working through depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders; difficult or failed relationships; grief and loss; sexual identity concerns; emotional or physical trauma; social or economic issues; and decision-making dilemmas to improve your self-confidence and eliminate self-defeating behaviors.

Who should see a social worker?

Anyone who would like help overcoming personal challenges and feeling more satisfied in life may benefit from seeing a social worker. Social workers provide their clients with skills to help them cope with psychological illnesses, difficult experiences, and major life challenges and transitions. If you have an issue or concern that you would like to work through, a social worker may be able to help. 

Consider seeing an experienced social worker if you would like help working through depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders; difficult or failed relationships; grief and loss; sexual identity concerns; emotional or physical trauma; social or economic issues; and decision-making dilemmas to improve your self-confidence and eliminate self-defeating behaviors.
What conditions and diseases does a social worker treat?

A social worker generally functions as a member of a team of professionals that identifies and treats many types of conditions. These conditions and diseases vary depending on the social worker’s education, specialty, and practice setting. Conditions and diseases may include:

  • Anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias

  • Dementia including loss of memory, language, and personality

  • Difficulties at school including problems related to illness, disabilities, learning disorders, and family and economic issues

  • Disruptive behavior disorders including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder

  • Eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder

  • Economic or emotional crisis, loss, or life transition including divorce, serious or chronic illness, disability, chronic pain disorder, death of a loved one, home foreclosure, homelessness, natural disaster, and job loss and other career issues

  • Mood disorders including depression and bipolar disorder

  • Personality disorders including borderline, dependent, and narcissistic personality disorders

  • Relationship problems including conflict between spouses, parents, children, and other family members, as well as problems developing and maintaining social or work relationships

  • Substance abuse and addictions including alcoholism and alcohol abuse, prescription medication abuse, and illegal drug abuse

What tests does a social worker perform or order?

A social worker can perform or order certain tests that vary depending on the social worker’s specialty, work setting, level of training, and whether the social worker is treating an adult or a child. Most tests take the form of patient interviews, written assessments and inventories, and direct observation. Tests may include:

  • Interpersonal functioning tests including observing and measuring how clients relate with other people, such as family members and friends, and how they relate with their environment

  • Mental health assessments and evaluations including checklists and questionnaires to identify mental illnesses and evaluate treatment progress

  • Personality tests including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

  • Substance abuse tests including alcohol and drug evaluations

  • Suicide risk assessments including suicide checklists

What treatments and interventions does a social worker provide?

Social workers provide various services and treatments to help their clients cope with and manage many types of challenges, including a life crisis or change, physical or emotional trauma, and medical and mental health conditions. However, in some cases, your social worker may provide referrals to psychiatrists and other specialists. Treatments and interventions include: 

  • Client advocacy including ensuring clients receive needed resources and support, and that their rights are respected

  • Crisis counseling including short-term therapy or strategies to help patients overcome an immediate traumatic or overwhelming crisis

  • Initial clinical assessment including diagnosing mental and emotional disorders or challenges

  • Involuntary commitment including commitment to a hospital or mental institution if the patient is at risk of hurting himself or herself or others

  • Resource identification including connecting clients to the proper resources, such as Medicare, Medicaid, health clinics, public transportation, employment agencies, and low-cost housing and child care

  • Talk therapy (psychotherapy) including individual, couples, child, family and group therapy

  • Treatment planning including determining therapy and support needs

Social worker training and certification

Education, training, experience and professional credentials are key elements in establishing a social worker’s level of competence. All states in the United States require a social worker to be licensed or certified, but regulations vary among states. Social workers are credentialed or certified by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Minimum requirements for practice vary depending on state regulations and the type of social worker, practice, and setting. In general, a direct-service social worker has a minimum of:

  • Bachelor’s (BSW) or master’s degree (MSW) in social work or possibly a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology or sociology

  • State licensure or certification, but state licensure may be optional

In general, a clinical social worker, also known as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), has a minimum of:

  • Master’s degree in social work (MSW)

  • Two years of supervised clinical experience

  • State licensure

Qualified social workers can pursue additional professional credentials or certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Requirements vary depending on the specialty, but generally include additional training, experience and education. Specialties include:

  • Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs focuses on helping people overcome dependencies on alcohol and drugs and other addictions such as gambling.

  • Education focuses on supporting students in achieving their potential in school.

  • Gerontology focuses on the needs of older adults including challenges associated with illness, disability, and grief and loss.

  • Healthcare focuses on helping people improve or maintain optimal functioning in relation to their health.

  • Hospice and palliative care focuses on helping people cope with serious and life-limiting illnesses to live the fullest lives possible.

  • Youth and family focuses on improving the social and psychological functioning of children, youth and families.

Social workers can also specialize in specific conditions or circumstances. This can include focusing on one specific area, such as grief, physical illness, or post-traumatic stress, or focusing on specific types of clients, such as couples, children or adolescents. It may be helpful to search for a social worker who focuses his or her work on your particular type of situation. When considering a specialized social worker, ask about his or her training, education and experience in the specialty area.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 27
  1. About Clinical Social Work. American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work. https://abecsw.org/clinical-social-work/.  
  2. Definition / What Clinical Social Workers Do. New York State Society for Clinical Social Work. http://www.nysscsw.org/what-clinical-social-workers-do  
  3. NASW Credentialing Center Frequently Asked Questions. The National Association of Social Workers. https://www.socialworkers.org/Careers/Credentials-Certifications/Credentialing-Center-FAQ.
  4. Credentials & Certifications. The National Association of Social Workers. https://www.socialworkers.org/Careers/Credentials..  
  5. NASW Practice Standards & Guidelines. The National Association of Social Workers. https://www.socialworkers.org/Practice/Practice-Standards-Guidelines..  
  6. Social Worker. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm.  


















































































































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