If you're thinking about a career in the helping professions, two roles might come to mind -- social worker and counselor. Both social workers and counselors may provide counseling to people with mental health disorders and may assist people who are struggling with the stresses of everyday life. While it might seem that social workers and counselors offer the same services, there are some significant distinctions between the two in terms of education, training and job responsibilities that might affect your career choice.
About Social Work
When someone asks you to think about what a social worker does, your first thought might be of someone who helps the needy. While social workers do help people who can't help themselves, social workers play other roles that distinguish them from counselors. One is that they take a strengths-based, "person-in-environment" perspective that involves looking at all of the clients' strengths, taking into account any biological, social and psychological factors that might have an impact on the situation. Social workers also fill a wide range of roles that can include advocacy, such as assisting someone with social services; helping a homeless client find housing; crisis intervention, such as helping clients in situations of child abuse or domestic violence; or helping clients dealing with life changes, such as divorce, adoption or job loss.
You can become a social worker with just a bachelor's degree -- but you'll only be allowed to provide direct services like advocacy, crisis intervention, adjustment counseling or assistance with concrete needs, such as housing or food. If you obtain a master's degree, you'll be able to open a private practice and provide clinical services, including counseling and psychotherapy. Your master's degree should come from an accredited university -- usually a requirement to obtain a license. Most states require that clinical social workers have a state licenses. The requirements for licensure vary by state, but usually include passing an examination, verifying your education, completing continuing education courses, and submitting proof of experience.
Counselors focus mainly on providing professional counseling services to clients. They work with individuals, couples, families and groups to help them deal with mental-health issues, cope with stress and solve problems. As a professional counselor, you probably won't provide advocacy or assistance with social services, although you might intervene in crisis situations, such as dealing with clients who might be suicidal. Counselors mainly work in private and group practices, but they also work in hospitals, schools and community services agencies.
To become a professional counselor, you need a master's or doctoral degree in professional counseling from an accredited university. Your coursework should include human behavior, counseling strategies, ethics and other relevant areas. Like social workers, counselors are also required to have state licenses to practice. Although the licensing requirements for professional counselors vary by state, you'll most likely need to complete at least 3,000 hours of post-graduate, supervised clinical practice providing counseling services. You also must pass a national examination and complete continuing education coursework on a regular basis.
Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.