Social workers play a very important role in helping individuals, families, vulnerable populations, and even entire communities. They promote public health by providing crucial services and connecting people and groups to additional services. Direct-service social workers and clinical social workers both guide their clients to overcome daily challenges that prevent them from enjoying a better quality of life, and this in turn helps improve public and community health and well-being.

Depending on training and certification level, social workers may act a lot like psychologists, counseling mental health patients. They also provide a wider range of services, though, and often work in the community and with clients and patients in their home or work environments. Many different kinds of people can benefit from the guidance of a social worker, but those who most benefit are vulnerable populations, like children with unstable home lives, domestic abuse victims, or people struggling with substance abuse, just to name a few.

What is a Social Worker?

In the most general sense, a social worker is a trained professional who helps individuals cope with issues in their lives and find practical solutions to problems. They work with a variety of people with various issues, although most social workers specialize or focus on one type of issue or one specific group of people, such as mental illness or children.

To be a social worker an individual needs to have a bachelor’s degree at a minimum, either in social work or in a related field, like psychology. Some states license or certify social workers at this level. A clinical social worker is a professional that must be licensed in every state. They work with patients who have mental illnesses or behavioral or emotional conditions. They hold master’s degrees in social work and also have hands-on clinical experience to earn licensing.

Whether clinical or non-clinical, and regardless of the group of people that a social worker helps most often, these are professionals who help people overcome daily challenges. They help protect the welfare of children, guide treatment for people with mental illnesses, or connect families to resources they need in their communities, among many other things. Social workers help individuals and families, but their work helps promote overall social justice, public health, and positive communities.

Non-Clinical Social Workers

Also referred to as direct-service social workers, non-clinical social workers only need to have a four-year degree and are not licensed in most states, although they may continue on in school to earn a graduate degree. You may encounter a direct-service social worker in public schools, in healthcare settings, in community settings and within community or municipal organizations, through state and local governments, and in hospitals. They spend a lot of time working in the environment of their clients, something which sets social work apart from psychology and other types of counseling, although they may also spend time meeting with clients in their offices.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers are different in that they have more training. They have to have completed a master’s degree in social work, completed two years of supervised experience in a clinical setting, and achieve licensing in the state in which they practice. Once they are licensed, these professionals are referred licensed clinical social workers, or LCSWs. The other difference is that clinical social workers are able to assess and diagnose patients and treat them with counseling and therapy for mental illnesses or behavioral conditions.

What Social Workers Do

The basic and overall purpose of social work is to help individuals and families overcome challenges in their lives, the things that hold them back on a daily basis. This may include socioeconomic challenges, domestic violence and child abuse, substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, behavioral issue sin children, parents who are not equipped to raise their children, crisis situations, and many other factors that cause serious issues in someone’s everyday life. Some specific duties of social workers include:

  • Determining which people and groups of people in specific communities need help.
  • Reaching out to individuals, families, or groups to offer assistance and services.
  • Assessing the needs of clients and helping guide them to create goals.
  • Developing plans for meeting clients’ goals.
  • Helping their clients access resources, such as other social services and community services, like vocational training or substance abuse treatment.
  • Guiding individuals through difficult situations, like divorce or illness, and helping them learn and practice good coping skills.
  • Responding in crises, such as a domestic violence situation.
  • Creating and managing files on cases and individuals.
  • Following up with clients and patients and changing plans as needed.
  • Advocating for clients as well as communities and vulnerable groups, such as children in poverty or victims of domestic violence.

In addition to these duties, clinical social workers also have more specific and specialized services that they provide. They evaluate, assess, and diagnose patients in a mental health setting. They can diagnose mental illnesses and behavioral disorders and provide counseling and therapy to treat these patients. They also work with families to help educate them about their loved ones’ challenges and needs and teach them how to better support them. They may specialize in addiction counseling, family therapy, school psychology, children’s behavioral disorders, or other areas.

Where Social Workers Provide Services

Social workers often provide their services in a client’s or patient’s environment. That may mean going into the home to work with a family struggling with getting along, going into schools to work with children, or working in hospitals with mental health patients. Social workers may also provide services, like therapy or developing goals and strategies with their clients, from their offices.

A social worker may be self-employed, working in a private practice offering family and other social services. Social workers are also employed by state government agencies, hospitals, local governments, community organizations and schools, and ambulatory or outpatient healthcare facilities.

Who Can Benefit from Working with a Social Worker?

Many people think of children when they think of social work, and while there are many vulnerable children who can benefit from their services, there are many adults who can too. Children who may work with a social worker include those having any type of difficulties at school, who have behavioral conditions or mental illnesses, who have been victims of abuse or neglect, and who are in the foster care system.

Families as units can also benefit from social workers, who can help them learn to function better, overcome difficult situations, manage behavioral issues, and find practical solutions to things like poverty and unemployment. Adults who may want to work with social workers include those with addictive disorders or mental illnesses, those who are struggling at work or in their relationships, victims of abuse or other traumatic events, individuals transitioning from incarceration, elderly patients whose needs are not being met in a hospital, and many others trying to cope with challenges of all types.

The type of care that social workers provide is unique. They not only help individuals and families; they also advocate for them. They act on their client’s behalf to get better services and care. If you or your family needs the services of a social worker, be sure you know the difference between clinical and non-clinical social workers and which you need. Also be sure that you work with someone that is licensed appropriately and has the experience to help you with your particular needs.