Become a Social Worker

A social worker can be many different things to many people, depending on the individual’s needs and circumstances. The traditional mission of this wide-ranging profession has been to¬†assist disadvantaged¬†people deal with difficult periods in their lives. Their problems can be personal, social, financial, physical or mental, and can include such diverse difficulties as abuse, addiction, temporary or terminal illness, divorce or relationship troubles, loss of a loved one, unemployment, poverty, discrimination, aging, educational problems, disability, and mental illness, among numerous others. Social workers counsel individuals, families, organizations and communities in an attempt to improve the quality of their lives by enabling them to cope more effectively with the inevitable stresses of modern life.

Social workers often deliver services that emphasize short-term intervention, such as counseling, or they might simply provide a referral to an appropriate source of assistance. Most social workers specialize in a particular field such as child welfare and family services, mental health, medical social work, school social work, community organization activities, or clinical social work.

A social worker can be many different things to many people, depending on the individual’s needs and circumstances. The traditional mission of this wide-ranging profession has been to assist disadvantaged people deal with difficult periods in their lives. Their problems can be personal, social, financial, physical or mental, and can include such diverse difficulties as abuse, addiction, temporary or terminal illness, divorce or relationship troubles, loss of a loved one, unemployment, poverty, discrimination, aging, educational problems, disability, and mental illness, among numerous others. Social workers counsel individuals, families, organizations and communities in an attempt to improve the quality of their lives by enabling them to cope more effectively with the inevitable stresses of modern life.

Social workers often deliver services that emphasize short-term intervention, such as counseling, or they might simply provide a referral to an appropriate source of assistance. Most social workers specialize in a particular field such as child welfare and family services, mental health, medical social work, school social work, community organization activities, or clinical social work.

Social Worker Degrees & Education

A bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum requirement for employment in the field of social work. A bachelor of social work (BSW) degree is specific to the field; however, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, or a related field can be sufficient for some entry-level jobs, such as caseworker. Even though a bachelor’s degree is the minimum credential necessary to obtain employment as a social worker, a master’s degree has become the default requirement for many positions. A master’s in social work (MSW) is typically required for clinical work as well as for numerous health-related social work positions.

All 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have additional licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding the practice of social work beyond the attainment of a degree. These regulations vary from state to state. States also govern the use of professional titles, reserving the title “social worker” for degreed and licensed practitioners.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers nationally-recognized credentials to indicate competence in a specific discipline, but these voluntary credentials are not a substitute for state certification and licensing.

Social Workers Job Description

Since the field of social work covers such a wide-ranging territory, most social workers specialize in a more tightly-focused facet of the field. The one element that virtually all specializations share is a direct contact with the people they are assisting.

Professional social workers can be found in every area of society, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, private practice, prisons, military, corporations, advocacy organizations, and numerous other public and private agencies that assist individuals and families in need.

The field of social work can be roughly divided into four major areas of practice:

Child, family, and school social workers arrange or provide services that improve the social and psychological functioning of children and families. The range of these services can run from rescuing abused children or arranging adoptions to addressing the problems of aging with the elderly and their families. In schools, social workers deal with behavioral, social and psychological problems similar to those addressed by school psychologists and counselors, with the additional step that the social worker might also arrange for outside assistance when necessary. In the workplace, social workers address issues such as stress or personal problems that affect their client’s performance.

Social workers who specialize in this branch usually work for service agencies, schools, or state or local governments. According to survey performed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 2005, eleven percent of its members listed child, adolescent, or family welfare as their primary practice area and six percent stated that they practiced in the field of school social work.

Medical and public health social workers provide clients in poor health with the support they require in order to deal with the problems of chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, or AIDS. They counsel patients, advise family caregivers, and might arrange for home delivery of prepared meals, medications, oxygen, or other vital services.

Medical and public health social workers are usually employed by hospitals, long-term and residential nursing care facilities, charitable and service agencies, or local governments. According to a 2005 survey performed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), about eight percent of the organization’s members were employed in the field of health care.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers, also known as clinical social workers, focus their practice on individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illness or substance abuse problems. These social workers arrange for or provide services such as individual or group therapy, community outreach, and crisis intervention. In some cases they might provide or arrange for training in elementary life skills, such as dressing and grooming. They might arrange for social rehabilitation therapy or for supportive services to ease patients’ reentry into the community. Mental health and substance abuse social workers often work in hospitals, treatment clinics and centers, individual and family services agencies, or local governments. Some clinical social workers essentially act as psychotherapists, counselors, or mental health practitioners, and often work in collaboration with psychiatrists, psychologists and other medical professionals.

In a survey performed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 2005, nearly 40 percent of its members listed “mental health” as their field of primary practice. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), professional social workers comprise the largest group of mental health services providers in the country, indicating that there are more clinical social workers than there are psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined. Federal law and the National Institutes of Health recognize clinical social work as one of five core mental health professions.

Other types of social workers include the researchers, planners, managers, and policymakers who study, analyze, and assess various problematic social issues such as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and violence, and who develop programs to alleviate them. These social workers might also be engaged in raising funds, writing grants, or lobbying for legislation and policies that address these issues.

Specialties in the field of social work include:

  • Mental Health Therapy
  • Disaster Relief
  • Military Social Work
  • Rural Social Work
  • Adoption & Foster Care
  • Child Welfare Services
  • Family Preservation Services
  • Homeless Family Assistance
  • Eating Disorders
  • Genetics
  • Hospital Social Work
  • Crisis Intervention
  • School Violence
  • Hospice and Palliative Care
  • Depression
  • Institutional Care
  • Chronic Pain
  • Outpatient Treatment
  • Development Disabilities
  • International Social Work
  • Advocacy, Consulting and Planning
  • Community Mental Health
  • Employee Assistance
  • Veterans Services
  • Child Abuse & Neglect
  • Domestic Violence
  • Political Development
  • Parent Education
  • Family Planning
  • HIV/AIDS
  • School Alternative Programs
  • Difficulties in School
  • Gerontology Services
  • Community-Based Services
  • In-Home Services
  • Senile Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Addiction Prevention & Treatment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Housing Assistance
  • Public Welfare
  • Employment Services

In any specialization, the effective social worker will possess a number of specific essential character traits. According to the National Association of Social Workers, for example, the practice of social work “requires knowledge of human development and behavior, of social, economic and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all these factors.”

Beyond the degrees, training and knowledge, a social worker must have a sincere desire to help the less fortunate in society. A good social worker needs emotional maturity, a sense of responsibility, and empathy balanced with objectivity. Social workers of all types should possess social skills that enable them to be sensitive to individuals under stress, as well as the patience to deal with clients under stress and with multiple bureaucracies. They must be good communicators, as they will be involved with a wide range of people at all levels of society, from clients with special needs to professionals involved with treatment to government authorities to staff members of various assistance organizations.

Social Worker Salary

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2004, approximately 562,000 people were employed as social workers. Almost ninety percent of that population practiced in the health care and social assistance industries, or in government agencies, primarily state or local departments of health and human services.

Of these 562,000 social workers, 272,000 worked in the field of child, family, and school social work; 116,000 were employed as mental health and substance abuse workers; 110,000 as medical and public health social workers; and the remaining 64,000 in various other social work specializations.

Figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the position of social worker is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, and is expected to grow by as much as 30 percent during the upcoming decade, much faster than most other fields. Employment opportunities are projected to be especially good for social workers whose specialty is substance abuse treatment or aging.

The Bureau also reports these median annual salaries in 2004 for the major divisions of the social work field:

Child, family, and school social workers: $34,820, with a range running from less than $23,130 to a high of more than $57,860. Elementary and secondary schools were the highest paying venues in this field, with a median annual wage of about $44,300.

Medical and public health social workers: $40,080, with a range running from less than $25,390 to a high of more than $58,740. General medical and surgical hospitals were the highest paying venues in this field, with a median annual wage of about $44,920.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $33,920, with a range running from less than $21,590 to a high of more than $54,180. Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals were the highest paying venues in this field, with a median annual wage of about $36,170.

Other social workers: $39,440, with a range running from less than $24,080 to a high of more than $62,720. Local government was the highest paying venue in this field, with a median annual wage of about $42,570.



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