4 Reasons to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker

Are you looking for a profession that will challenge you? One that will allow you to make a positive impact on some of the most vulnerable populations? You might consider seeking a psychiatric social worker degree, which is possible by enrolling in a psychiatric social work program that offers hands-on experiences and learning opportunities. If you’re contemplating a career in psychiatric social work, then the following information may shed some light on the profession — and why this career may be suitable for you.

1. You could provide necessary care to people dealing with mental health issues.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. in a given year experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. As one of the largest groups of clinically trained mental health services providers in the county, social workers are uniquely positioned to help those who are struggling in their local communities to improve their mental health.

Additional statistics from NAMI provide a glimpse into the wide-reaching effects of mental illness:

However, with proper treatment, people with mental health disorders, can lead healthier lives — and psychiatric social workers can play a positive role.

2. Serving vulnerable populations is a rewarding experience.

Although specific descriptions vary, the psychiatric social worker definition generally includes professionals who provide “a specialized type of medical social work that involves supporting, providing therapy to, and coordinating the care of individuals who are severely mentally ill and who require hospitalization or other types of intensive psychiatric help.”

So what do psychiatric social workers do? Duties of a psychiatric social worker include a variety of tasks in the context of client work, including, but not limited to:

  • Conducting psychosocial and risk assessments
  • Providing individualized and group psychotherapy
  • Offering crisis intervention and support
  • Dispensing care coordination and discharge planning services

Mental health professionals who enjoy working in psychiatric social work find it to be fulfilling because of the positive effect they can have on deeply vulnerable populations. These include individuals who suffer from depression, severe anxiety, and psychotic or substance-related disorders.

3. Psychiatric social workers occupy a variety of work environments.

Another benefit: Psychiatric social workers have the opportunity to work in a variety of work settings. These include acute care and residential care hospitals that specialize in the treatment of mental illnesses, partial residential facilities and outpatient community settings. Within these environments, types of psychiatric social workers generally include the following:

  • Inpatient psychiatric social workers
  • Emergency and crisis services psychiatric social workers
  • Outpatient psychiatric social workers

Depending upon where they work and the role they occupy, a psychiatric social worker may have overlapping responsibilities that require them to complete tasks that are associated with all three.

Organizations that hire these professionals include health care systems and providers that serve the aforementioned vulnerable populations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the following industries have the highest levels of employment for mental health and substance abuse social workers: 

  • Outpatient care centers
  • Individual and family services
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health and substance abuse facilities
  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals

4. Job opportunities are expected to grow during the next decade.

There are a variety of factors driving the increased need for psychiatric social workers, including rising trends in mental illness and a change in sentencing patterns related to substance use. Each of these dynamics inform BLS projections for social workers’ job growth: “Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 19 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment will grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs, which are staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail.”

Psychiatric Social Worker Salary

National data for the psychiatric social worker salary is reported within the BLS category of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers. According to the BLS, the 2018 mean annual wage for these professionals was $49,630, with the 90th percentile earning $78,910. Level of education, specific role, work setting and geographic area can all affect salary.

Consider these top-paying work settings for this job, according to the BLS:

  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools: $59,670
  • Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals: $59,500
  • Offices of other health practitioners: $56,990
  • Home health care services: $55,640

Some areas offer higher rates of pay — the BLS reports these as the top five states with the highest average salary:  

  • New Jersey: $79,130
  • District of Columbia: $69,690
  • Hawaii: $67,930
  • Connecticut: $63,290
  • New York: $62,130

How to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker

The BLS recommends that future psychiatric social workers should possess these necessary types of skills:

  • Communication: Social workers must be able to listen to and understand their clients’ needs in order to support them effectively.
  • Emotional: This role includes frequent work with individuals who are in very stressful situations.
  • Interpersonal: These professionals work with diverse groups of people.
  • Organizational: The profession is fast-paced and has many priorities that require particular attention.
  • Problem-solving: Client dynamics are often complex and require practical and innovative approaches to care.

Psychiatric social worker education often begins with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). For a clinical position, a master’s degree in social work (MSW) is required. Additionally, all states require clinical social workers to be licensed (LCSW) after obtaining an MSW. Eligibility to take the licensing exam requires two years of supervised clinical experience after graduation.Individuals considering this field of work should pursue a Master’s in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited institution such as the online MSW program from USC. Want to know more? Learn how to become a LCSW. 

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.