Although social workers generally fall into one of two categories, there are a number of subgroups and specialties within those categories. Direct-service social workers work with people to help them solve problems in their everyday lives, while clinical social workers work with people who have mental illness, behavioral or emotional issues. Clinical social workers are required to have a master’s degree and must be licensed in all states. Direct-service social workers are licensed in some states.
Direct-Service Social Workers
Direct-service social workers work with their clients to determine needs, strengths and support networks to help them solve problems of everyday life, such as getting food and shelter. They may make referrals or assist clients in obtaining food stamps, child care, health care or financial benefits. A direct-service social worker may also help people with a chronic illness, such as diabetes or severe heart disease, adjust to the changes in their lives, advocate for resources and help them work with government agencies.
Child, Family and School
The direct-service social worker group includes child and family social workers and school social workers. Child social workers may help arrange adoptions, intervene in situations in which children are being abused or neglected and help parents find services or apply for benefits. Others work in the foster care system, finding or evaluating foster families and supervising the children who have been placed in a home for care. School social workers collaborate with teachers and parents to help improve academic performance or strengthen social development. They may assist with problems such as bullying, aggressive behavior or frequent school absences.
Clinical Social Workers
Clinical social workers provide mental or behavioral health therapy to individuals, couples or groups. They diagnose mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, or emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression. Licensed clinical social workers, commonly called LCSWs, also make referrals for other services, including medical care, substance abuse treatment or mental health care. Clinical social workers may work in private practice and can bill insurance companies or Medicare for their services.
Gerontology, Hospice and Substance Abuse
Subgroups of clinical social workers include those who specialize in gerontology and hospice as well as substance abuse counselors. Gerontological social workers specialize in the care of the elderly. They may assist people with services such as food or home health care or work with older adults in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Hospice social workers help patients who are dying cope with the process of grief, loss and death. Substance abuse social workers work in support groups, addiction treatment programs or 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to help people with mental illness or addictions.
The Justice System
Social workers are also found in the justice system. They may be parole or probation officers or provide basic life skills training to inmates. Social workers in the justice system may also counsel victims in a in rape crisis center. A social worker may serve as an expert witness, work in a victim assistance program or partner with attorneys to provide services outside the scope of legal advice. Some social workers work in police departments to help resolve domestic violence situations or provide debriefing and support to officers in traumatic situations or hostage cases.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.