What Is a Clinical Social Worker?

Clinical social workers constitute the largest group of mental health/healthcare providers in the United States, with 250,000 practitioners serving millions of clients, according to the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABE). Certain differences help distinguish clinical social work from non-clinical or macro-level social work.

The Clinical Social Worker

The clinical social work profession is based on theories and methods of prevention and treatment for providing mental health and healthcare services. This helps practitioners focus on behavioral and bio-psychosocial problems and disorders.

Clinical social workers interact directly with their clients to help improve the quality of their lives. There is a great deal of versatility in this field, as clinical social workers can benefit clients including individuals, couples, families and groups in a wide range of settings. Direct services include assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, intervention/treatment, evaluation of outcomes and case management.

Examples of areas where clinical social workers practice include the following.

  • Mental Health and Addiction: Social workers help clients with substance use disorders, a range of mental or emotional difficulties and/or chronic and persistent mental illness.
  • Health and Aging: Social workers support clients and their families by providing assessment and intervention during times of medical illness. Focuses include chronic illness, ethical and legal concerns, disability and end-of-life care.
  • Child and Family: Social workers promote the well-being of children and families in schools, the community and in clients’ homes.

Clinical social workers are noted for their versatility. “The flexible and skillful application of knowledge, theories, and methods in a bio-psychosocial approach is a hallmark of clinical social work,” the ABE says. “Interventions—the direct person-to-person(s) process—are conducted with people of all ages and range in nature from preventive, crisis, and psycho-educational services to collaborative client advocacy and brief and long-term counseling or psychotherapy.”

The Non-Clinical Social Worker

Non-clinical or macro-level social workers impact larger systems, services and policies that affect individuals, groups and communities. They accomplish this through program and service development and implementation at the policy level. Other practitioners may address gaps in resources, inequities and limitations on access to services.

These professionals can have administrative duties and use some form of counseling. At private and public organizations, non-clinical or macro-level social workers can be at the individual, group or administrative level. They may work as policy analysts, community organizers and legislative advocates.

Starting a Career in Social Work

Non-clinical social workers need a bachelor’s degree in social work, while clinical social workers need a master’s degree and two years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Clinical social workers also need to be licensed in the state where they practice.

Campbellsville University offers an online Bachelor of Social Work and an online Master of Social Work to prepare students for a career in social work. These flexible programs equip graduates with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue non-clinical and clinical roles in the field. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 12 percent by 2024, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.