The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not make a distinction between mental health social workers and substance abuse social workers (link). As medical professionals move toward treating addiction as a disease, these two fields will experience more overlap. All salary and employment information is based on BLS data, unless otherwise indicated.
Social workers in mental health are considered clinical social workers; they diagnose and treat mental illnesses, so more advanced training and certification or licensure is needed. In addition to developing treatment plans for clients with mental illness, mental health social workers provide information on support groups and 12-step programs that can help clients cope with their illness. They may also refer clients to psychiatrists, who can prescribe medications to treat mental illness. Most mental health services are provided by social workers specializing in mental health; 60 percent of mental health professionals are social workers.
Social workers in mental health are unique. They take a holistic approach to treatment and healing. Like all social workers, mental health social workers see people in their environment. Their work combines psychological, social and practical tactics.
Private practice mental health social workers keep regular office hours, as well as make home visits. Some may work in hospitals or treatment facilities, for employee assistance programs or in government.
As clinical social workers, those in the mental health field are required to hold a master’s degree in social work. All states require additional licensure and certification, but these requirements vary from state to state.
In addition to academic and licensure standards, those entering the mental health social work field should be compassionate and have excellent listening skills. Social workers are problem solvers and should, therefore, possess the necessary skill set to create attainable action plans. These skills include critical thinking and time management, among others.
Salary and Outlook
As of May 2010, the median mental health social worker salary was $38,600. This number fluctuates depending on the workplace setting. Those working in hospitals have a median annual wage of $48,010, while those working in individual and family services earn $36,740.
Employment for social workers in this field is rising. Job opportunities are expected to grow by 31 percent over the next decade.