June 6, 2023

Social Worker vs Therapist: Similarities and Differences

Social workers and therapists both help people and greater communities. Both professionals can work in various settings, such as hospitals, non-profit organizations, schools, community health clinics, research institutes, and private practices. If you’re considering working in either role, it’s important to know what distinguishes them from one another.

What Are Social Workers?

Social workers are mental health professionals who aim to improve the well-being of the clients they serve. Social workers work with people of all different backgrounds, and they might treat children, adults, groups, or families.

Social workers can specialize in specific areas of focus, including:

Community social work: Community social workers focus on community-based advocacy with an overarching goal of social justice. They emphasize their efforts on improving the functioning of a larger community, such as a neighborhood, city, county, or state.

School-based social work: School-based social workers provide liaison support between students, their families, teachers, and administration. They are dedicated to advocating for a child’s emotional and educational needs. 

Healthcare social work: Healthcare social workers work in medical settings and often provide emotional support for people navigating various medical-related stressors. They might also conduct research and develop programs intended to improve resilience. 

Child and family social work: Child and family social workers aim to strengthen and reunify families. They also focus on protecting children from harm and ensuring that they have safe living environments. 

Clinical social work: Clinical social workers provide individual, family, and group therapy. They treat a variety of mental health issues and support clients navigate various stressors. 

What Are Therapists? 

Therapists specialize in treating numerous emotional and mental health issues. Therapists also work with people of all different backgrounds, and they are employed in various work settings.

It’s important to note that the term, ‘therapist’ is somewhat of an umbrella term. That’s because many mental health care professionals, including psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and licensed professional counselors, can provide therapy in the United States. Each state has its own individual requirements for what a mental health professional needs to work as a therapist. 

Therapists can specialize in specific areas of focus, including:

Child therapy: Child therapists typically work with children and adolescents experiencing environmental and psychosocial stressors. They may treat the child alone, but they may also provide therapy for the family. 

Couples therapy: Couples therapists help couples strengthen intimacy, improve communication, and increase their relationship satisfaction. They are trained to avoid picking sides and instead aim to support both people to come together to feel more connected. 

Grief therapy: Grief therapists support clients experiencing grief and loss. Their work typically focuses on providing emotional support along with healthy coping skills to manage relevant stressors. 

Sex therapy: Sex therapists treat sexual dysfunction and provide support for the emotional stressors surrounding sex and intimacy. These therapists may work with individuals, couples, or both.

Trauma-informed therapy: Trauma-informed therapists aim to help clients struggling with trauma symptoms. Their interventions are focused on processing emotions, building a sense of safety within the therapeutic relationship, and improving their overall resilience.

Key Differences Between a Social Worker and Therapist

Both professionals seek to improve the emotional well-being of their clients. The main difference is that social workers tend to emphasize macro-level factors influencing human behavior and therapists often focus on more systemic factors.

In their work, therapists examine how families and relationships impact a client’s mental health. They then generally use therapeutic interventions designed to improve individual or familial change. Within the therapeutic role, they typically focus on therapy alone (although some time is also devoted to case conceptualization, research, continuing education, and paperwork). 

Therapist skills tend to be strongly rooted in:

  • A deep understanding of human behavior
  • Relationship-building
  • Crisis intervention
  • Individual safety and welfare
  • The application of psychology 

Social workers, on the other hand, might prioritize improving a client’s environmental or psychosocial circumstances. Although they may provide therapy, that is just one of the potential roles they have. Social workers can also spend significant time involved in advocacy, assistance programs, referrals, and developing community-based programs. 

Social worker skills tend to be strongly rooted in:

  • Applied understanding of behavioral health
  • Crisis intervention 
  • Managing liaison roles
  • Discharge planning
  • Advocacy and social justice 

Which Degree Is Better?

Both social work and therapy/counseling programs have significant overlap. In addition, professionals from both types of schools can have meaningful careers. 

Social workers need at least a bachelor’s degree, although clinical social workers need master’s or doctorate-level degrees. Therapists need at least a master’s level degree to provide therapy. Each state has its own requirements for licensure, board exams, and maintaining a license in good standing. Source

The outlook for both careers is positive, as there is a tremendous need for professional mental health services. The BLS shows that social workers will grow 9% between 2021-2031. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are projected to grow by 22%, and marriage and family therapists are projected to grow by 14%. All of these careers are considered to grow ‘faster than average.’ 

Social Worker vs Therapist Pay

According to the BLS, the median social worker salary was $51,760 in 2020. Marriage and family therapists earned just about the same amount at $51,340.

Certain settings may be more financially lucrative than others. For example, in both careers, those who work in private practice or have executive/management roles may earn a higher salary. 

Final Thoughts

Working as either a social worker or therapist can be incredibly rewarding. Both careers have numerous opportunities for professional growth, and you will undoubtedly help many people in your line of work.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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