Counselor vs. Social Worker: Choosing a Path to Inspire Positive Social Change

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Mental health counselor talks with a client

Mental health counselors are vital contributors to the treatment and management of psychological illnesses. They often collaborate with practitioners of other human services, such as social workers. Although counselors and social workers both work to affect positive social change in the communities they serve, they achieve this goal differently. Counselors provide therapeutic services to their clients, while social workers have a broader role that includes guiding their clients to services to improve their quality of life.

The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) — a respected professional organization for mental health counselors in the U.S. — upholds a strict code of ethics. It requires mental health counselors to advocate for positive social change. This code also dictates standard practices for the industry that counselors are expected to embody as they deliver their services.

Earning an online Master of Arts in Counseling is an excellent choice for those who wish to make an impact on communities and society. Graduates are exposed to the knowledge required to uphold their ethical obligations to their clients and the public, and to advance the mental health counseling profession by encouraging positive social change.

What’s The Difference Between Counselors and Social Workers?

Mental health counselors provide direct support to individuals who are experiencing mental health issues such as stress, depression or anxiety. Social workers don’t provide direct mental health care services, but they do typically help refer individuals suffering from mental health conditions to therapeutic services such as counseling.

This partnership between counselors and social workers is vital to treating critical mental health issues, including substance abuse and addiction. People who suffer from addiction often struggle to maintain a desirable quality of life, which affects their mental well-being overtime. Social workers may assist with life’s necessities like housing, nutrition and most importantly, treatment for substance abuse. In most cases, social workers refer clients with addiction issues to counselors or other mental health care practitioners who specialize in substance abuse counseling. It is clear that mental health counselors, with the support of social workers, can significantly influence positive social change by promoting mental health in the communities they serve.

How To Prepare for a Mental Health Counseling Career

Aspiring mental health care workers who wish to advance their career in mental health counseling may choose to pursue Wake Forest University’s Online Master of Arts in Counseling degree. The clinical mental health counseling track teaches how human growth and development, as well as the social and cultural foundations of society, play into the psychological development of individuals across their lifespan. This knowledge may be applied in clinical mental health scenarios by formulating plans of care for patients who are afflicted with a wide range of mental and emotional disorders. After mastering the concepts featured in a Master of Arts in Counseling curriculum, graduates may choose a variety of mental health counseling careers, including those listed here:

Marriage and Family Therapist

Providing mental health counseling to families, married couples and other domestic partnerships requires a unique approach that may differ from the typical strategies employed by a general mental health counselor. Treatment plans must be designed to serve the needs of all involved parties. Marriage and family therapists help patients navigate difficulty in relationships by assessing the emotions and experiences of each patient. They then use these insights to guide patients toward progress.

For example, if a child expresses experiencing a lack of parental attention, family therapists may work with parents to discern how much more time they need to spend with their child to improve the relationship. They will evaluate the parents’ lifestyles and suggest the best ways to be more present in their child’s life. Understanding how family dynamics can affect mental health is essential in this role, because marriage and family therapists are not only employed to improve the mental health of their clients, but also to improve the overall quality of their clients’ relationships.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marriage and family therapists earned a median annual wage of $50,090 in 2018. The job growth rate is projected to be much faster than average, with an expected growth of 22% between 2018 and 2028.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors are employed by health care providers to help patients recover from their addiction to harmful substances. They assess their clients’ condition and develop a treatment strategy that is tailored to fit their clients’ specific needs. A critical aspect of this job is identifying the behaviors or environmental factors that are influencing the patient’s substance abuse. Counselors work to remedy their client’s dependence on drugs and alcohol. They also provide therapy for the family of addicts and alcoholics, as they may be negatively impacted by seeing their loved one struggle with addiction.

The BLS reported that substance abuse counselors earned a median of $41,070 in 2018, with the top 10% earning approximately $65,080. The job growth rate is projected to be much faster than average, with an expected growth of 22% between 2018 and 2028.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors provide mental health support to a variety of different patient populations, including individuals, families, couples and other groups. Depending on their education, experience and credentials, they can also specialize in delivering counseling to specific subsections of the population, including students, children or the elderly. The overall objective is to determine what mental or emotional challenges their patients are experiencing, and then provide education and practical steps to improve their well-being.

The BLS reported that mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $42,840 in 2018, with the top 10% earning a median of $70,100. The job growth rate is projected to be much faster than the average of all other jobs, with an expected growth of 22% between 2018 and 2028.

Behavioral Health Case Manager

Careers in behavioral health case management are more aligned with social work, because these professionals coordinate patient treatment rather than provide direct counseling. Case managers refer their clients to services to improve overall quality of life. Education and a background in mental health counseling are valuable in this role, because case managers who recognize the impact mental health can have on behavior are usually better equipped to develop the most effective treatment plans.

The BLS reported that social workers and related positions (including behavioral health case managers) earned a median annual salary of $49,470 in 2018. The job outlook forecasts a slightly faster than average growth rate of 11% between 2018 and 2028.

Learn How to Influence Positive Social Change As a Mental Health Counselor

Both mental health counselors and social workers support healthy relationships throughout their communities by helping individuals manage their mental and emotional well-being  Advanced interpersonal communication skills and a developed ability to think critically are valuable tools for aspiring human services professionals who wish to produce positive social change.

Learn how Wake Forest University’s Online Master of Arts in Counseling program prepares graduates for careers that can make a profound difference to individual patients, communities and society at large.


Recommended Reading:

3 Types of Counseling Specialty Areas and Careers

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Why Is It Important?



American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, About Marriage and Family Therapists

American Counseling Association, What is Professional Counseling?

American Mental Health Counselors Association, Mental Health Counselor Code of Ethics

Houston Chronicle, “Professional Counselor vs. Social Worker”

International Federation of Social Workers, “What is Social Work?”

PayScale, Average Behavioral Health Case Manager Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Wake Forest University, Online Master’s in Counseling and Human Services