Psychiatric social workers make a difference in people's lives by diagnosing and treating clients with mental health disorders.
The process of becoming a psychiatric social worker takes several years. After earning graduate degrees in social work and completing internships, prospective psychiatric social workers must pass exams and apply for licensure.
Social workers who specialize in mental health and psychiatric services strengthen their crisis response, risk assessment, and mental health treatment skills through education and practical training. As one of the most common specializations of social work, psychiatric social workers benefit from working in an in-demand career. This guide walks through how to become a psychiatric social worker.
What Do Psychiatric Social Workers Do?
Social workers can specialize in several different areas of social work and can work as licensed psychiatric social workers. Psychiatric social workers perform several key duties, such as conducting psychiatric and mental health assessments for vulnerable clients.
Thanks to their clinical training, psychiatric social workers can diagnose mental health disorders. They also perform risk assessments, particularly during the intake process at a psychiatric facility.
Social workers who specialize in mental health may offer individual and group therapy sessions. As part of their counseling training, psychiatric social workers learn to intervene during crises and support clients. They also create specialized treatment plans, connect clients with social services, and design programs to serve the needs of vulnerable populations.
Depending on their focus areas, psychiatric social workers may primarily interact with clients managing substance abuse disorders, people with anxiety or depression, or individuals with other mental health issues. While interacting with clients, psychiatric social workers uphold professional values and the code of ethics.
Where Do Psychiatric Social Workers Work?
Social workers primarily practice in medical and psychiatric settings. Inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services rely on psychiatric social workers to help people access social services and manage their daily responsibilities. Psychiatric social workers also work in emergency and crisis services. In these roles, they may work irregular hours, including nights and weekends.
The demand for social workers will increase at a faster-than-average rate, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Psychiatric social workers occupy one of the most common specialties within social work, leading to high demand for their services.
Skills Needed for Psychiatric Social Work
Psychiatric social workers use their knowledge of social work values and the code of ethics to serve their clients. The ability to counsel clients, maintain case files, and develop programs helps psychiatric social workers succeed. They also regularly draw on their assessment and treatment skills.
Successful psychiatric social workers bring a mix of soft skills and hard skills to the field. These professionals rely on their ability to communicate effectively, listen with compassion, and solve problems. Without organizational and interpersonal skills, even well-trained psychiatric social workers can struggle to manage their responsibilities.
Psychiatric Social Worker Skills
- Communication and listening
- Compassion and patience
- Interpersonal skills
- Organizational abilities
- Assessment abilities
- Treatment plan design
- Individual and group counseling
- Case file maintenance
- Program development
Steps to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker
Each psychiatric social worker must complete several degrees, an internship, and licensure examinations to work in the field. Individuals wondering how to become a psychiatric social worker can follow the step-by-step guide below. Psychiatric social workers often follow a very similar career path to clinical social workers.
1. Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work
Psychiatric social workers must hold master's degrees to meet licensure requirements. Before applying to a master of social work (MSW) program, an applicant should possess a bachelor of social work (BSW) or other undergraduate degree. Applicants without backgrounds in social work may need to take prerequisite courses.
Master's-level social work students who want to specialize in mental health typically concentrate in clinical or psychiatric social work. Common MSW courses include:
- Clinical social work
- Assessment of mental disorders
- Mental health policy and services
- Child mental health
- Social work practice in health settings
Prospective psychiatric social workers can earn social work degrees through in-person and online programs. Accredited online BSW and online MSW programs meet the same licensure requirements as in-person programs.
2. Complete Internship Hours
Graduate students in social work complete supervised internships to gain practical skills. Psychiatric social work students typically arrange for field placements in mental health settings. Their internships often occur at outpatient psychiatric facilities, hospitals, and psychiatric services facilities. Accredited MSW programs require at least 900 hours of supervised field instruction.
In addition to an internship, some psychiatric social workers complete post-graduate placements to meet state licensure requirements. Depending on the state, social workers may need to apply for provisional licenses while meeting the clinical social work requirements.
3. Pass a National Licensing Exam
A licensed social worker must pass a national exam to qualify for a license. The Association of Social Work Boards administers exams for MSW graduates, advanced generalists, and clinical social workers. The exam includes 170 multiple-choice questions that candidates must complete in four hours.
Before registering for an exam, candidates should research their state requirements. Typically, a license in clinical social work requires passing scores on the clinical social work exam.
4. Apply for Social Work State Licensure
Clinical social workers, such as psychiatric social workers, must hold state licensure. In addition to passing a national licensing exam, candidates may need to take state exams or meet state-specific coursework requirements. Most states also set a minimum number of supervised practice hours.
In most states, licensed social workers renew their credentials every two years. During the renewal process, social workers typically meet continuing education requirements.
5. Pursue Continued Education
After applying for social work licensure, psychiatric social workers complete continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials. Each state sets specific continuing education requirements. In some states, for example, a licensed social worker must complete 30 hours of continuing education for each renewal.
Social work websites, online programs, and professional associations all offer continuing education courses. For instance, the National Association for Social Workers provides several continuing education options.
Ask an Expert
Wendy Pitts, LCSW-C has been a licensed social worker for 21 years. She has experience working in many areas of social work, including a hospital outpatient clinic and providing family and individual therapy in both a treatment foster care agency and a group home. She is currently employed as a school social worker in a public school district and has her own private practice, Guiding Insight, LLC, where she provides supervision to new social workers and sees adults for individual therapy. Pitts is also the author of Knowing Your Worth, a book intended to help her clients and others recognize their value to themselves and the world.
Why did you choose to become a psychiatric social worker?
I've always wanted to work in mental health in some capacity. As a child I wanted to be a psychiatrist. In high school I wanted to be a child psychologist. My first job after college was in a social work agency, and I really connected with the social work worldview in a way that I hadn't as a psychology major. When I was ready for grad school, I knew that social work was the right path for me.
What's a typical day for a psychiatric social worker?
The primary task I am responsible for is behavior management. The students I work with were sent to my school primarily for behavioral concerns in their home schools. I work with them on finding positive ways to get their needs met. I do this primarily through individual and group therapy. I also join kids in the classroom to help them use the coping skills we've worked on in therapy in real situations. Part of my time is also used writing behavior plans to assist the teachers in working with the students.
Who do you communicate with on the job?
I meet with other members of the clinical team as a whole, weekly, to discuss the students on our caseloads. I have monthly contact with the parents of my students. Depending on the needs of individual students, I have anywhere from daily to monthly contact with their teachers. I communicate with representatives of the students' home schools as they begin showing signs of being ready to return.
What kind of hours do you keep?
I work from 7:05 - 2:40, Monday through Friday, during the school year. I am off in the summer.
Who are your coworkers?
My coworkers are other mental health therapists, psychologists, guidance counselors, teachers, and administrators.
What knowledge do you utilize?
I mostly use my knowledge of adolescent development and training in working with kids dealing with trauma. My knowledge of restorative justice and mindfulness practices are also utilized often.
What are the most rewarding aspects of being a psychiatric social worker?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing the growth my students show by the end of their time with me. I love going to graduations for students who stay with us for the remainder of the school career and I love having the final meeting with their home school for those who choose to earn their way back.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a psychiatric social worker?
The most challenging part of my job is seeing kids who are hurting and knowing that I can't solve all of their problems. It is also difficult hearing people who don't know my students refer to them as "the bad kids." They are frequently talked about as though they lack intrinsic value, and so many of them have heard this for so long that they have internalized that belief.
What type of person is successful and thrives as a psychiatric social worker?
To thrive in this field, one needs a deep well of empathy for those who are struggling and thick enough skin to not take things personally. When people are hurting in the ways that many psychiatric patients are, they will often lash out in their pain at those who are trying to help them. Having the empathy to want to help them rather than retaliate and the thick skin to know that their attack wasn't really about you are what help to keep you going in this field.
How did you make the most of your social work degree programs and fieldwork hours so that they prepared you for post-grad jobs?
I was very clear with my school that my ultimate goal was to work in a school setting, so both of my internships were with public schools. This gave me experience with the sorts of issues that students are facing in a school setting. Already being familiar with the needs of a school system gave me an edge when applying for a position with a school for kids with special needs.
What to Look for in a Psychiatric Social Work Program
Prospective psychiatric social workers should always choose accredited MSW programs. Accredited schools and programs meet high standards for academic excellence.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits master's programs. Accreditation shapes a social worker's career. Only a CSWE-accredited degree meets the requirements for professional licensure and practice.
In addition, applicants must consider their preference for in-person or online programs. Accredited online MSW programs meet the same requirements as accredited in-person programs.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker Career Information
Mental health and substance abuse social workers, including psychiatric social workers, earn a median salary of around $48,700 per year. Social work salaries vary depending on the specialization and location. Some states offer significantly higher salaries. Experienced social workers also increase their earning potential by pursuing social services careers.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker Career Outlook
|State||Mean Annual Salary (2020)|
|District of Columbia||$73,490|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Psychiatric Social Worker Professional Organizations
Common Questions About Becoming a Psychiatric Social Worker
A psychiatric social worker holds a master's degree in social work with a focus on mental health and psychiatric social work.
The process of becoming a psychiatric social worker takes 6-7 years. A psychiatric social worker needs a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, passing scores on a licensing exam, and a license to practice.
Yes. Psychiatric social workers can diagnose mental health disorders and create treatment plans. As clinical social workers, they assess and treat clients.
Social workers connect clients with social services, while therapists typically provide direct counseling services. Social workers and therapists both advise clients and help them manage challenges.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.
Header Image Credit: SDI Productions | Getty Images
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