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The Difference between Social Workers, Counselors and Therapists

Many students are interested in a career in the mental health field, but are unsure of which specialty to pursue. Here we discuss the differences between them, and the options available for those interested in becoming social workers, counselors, and therapists.  

Mental Health Professionals: Social Workers, Counselors, and Therapists

All three are professionals in the mental health industry and work in different ways to help with issues that are related to the mind. The techniques used and the training and degrees required are different.  Social workers, for example, must pass the ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards) to be licensed.  To become a board certified therapist or counselor, candidates must pass one of the NBCC exams (National Board for Certified Counselors) - most common is the NCC (National Certified Counselor).  

Social Workers

Social workers generally hold a Master's Degree and/or Doctorate  (M.S.W. or Ph.D.) in Social Work. Usually it is a 2- or 3-year program followed by an internship or practical experience. The training includes techniques in psychotherapy and social work, with an emphasis on connecting people with programs and services available within the community.  


Counselors, like therapists, go to school and attain a Master of Arts or Master of Sciences degree in Counseling or Clinical Psychology (M.A. or M.S.). Traditionally a 2-year program, a thesis is required at the end, and it is usually followed up with a 2-year doctorate program. Although trained in psychotherapy, they usually are not experienced with psychological assessment like a psychiatrist would be.  


Therapists go to school for a 2-year program and earn a Master of Arts or Sciences degree in Clinical Psychology (M.A. or M.S.) and achieve further certifications or specialties in certain fields such as psychology or family therapy. Many states require licenses to work within a certain specialty.  

What They Do

Social Workers are in the business of improving the lives of their clients. This can be accomplished in many ways, and  they usually work with other programs, services, and professionals to help the people that they are assigned to. They might help one with emotional problems, or could also be out in the community helping those in need of services and advice. They might work in a school, hospital, community outreach center, or for charity programs here or abroad. They steer people to where the help is, or arrange to bring help to those in need of it. Counselors work one-on-one with people to help them solve problems or work out issues that they may be having in their lives. They usually specialize in at least one area of expertise, such as alcohol or substance abuse, or marriage. There are many specialties, but they can also be assigned as overall helpers in many psychology-related situations. With their training in Clinical Psychology, they are on the front lines, assessing and evaluating people to decide on further treatment. Therapists use their training and mental health skills to help people with a variety of problems including stress, depression, marital issues, and much more. They may be referred by a physician or can be part of a company's employee help program. Therapists use their skills and training to diagnose and work through issues related to behavior and mental health problems. They may be in private practice, or in a clinic or hospital setting.  

The Right Choice For You

Choosing the mental health profession that is right for you is important. Getting the proper training and credentials can be costly and may take years; however, it can be a rewarding career. Helping others and earning a good income while doing so is attracting more and more people to this field, and statistics reflect a growing demand in the U.S. for years to come.  

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