Social Worker vs. Counselor: Which Career Is Right for You?

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A counselor meets 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 clients to services to improve their quality of life.

In seeking a profession that contributes to positive change in the lives of individuals — and in communities as a whole — it’s important to delineate the differences between social worker vs. counselor roles so individuals can decide which career path to pursue.

Pursuing higher education is an important step toward a successful, rewarding career in either profession. For those who choose the counseling path, earning an online Master of Arts in Counseling is an excellent option. 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.

Counselor vs. Social Worker: What Are the Differences?

Both counselors and social workers play an important role in supporting individuals suffering from mental illness. However, their approach and the level of support they provide can vary considerably.

The main distinction is that counselors provide direct clinical care, while social work professionals work to connect their clients to the appropriate community services. More specifically, mental health counselors provide direct support to individuals who are experiencing mental health issues such as stress, depression or anxiety. Social workers generally don’t provide direct mental health care services — though licensed clinical social workers may provide therapy and other treatment for mental health issues — but they do typically help refer individuals to therapeutic services such as counseling.

This partnership between counselors and social workers is vital to treating critical mental health issues, including substance misuse and addiction. People who suffer from addiction often struggle to maintain a desirable quality of life, which affects their mental well-being over time.

Social workers may assist with life’s necessities like housing, nutrition and treatment for substance misuse. In most cases, social workers refer clients with addiction issues to counselors or other mental health care practitioners who specialize in substance misuse counseling. It’s 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.

Educational Requirements

In addition to the duties of their specific roles, there are also differences in terms of educational requirements between counselors and social workers. A social worker can find entry-level work with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), and may then choose to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) as well as professional licensure to advance their career. Mental health counselors are typically required to have a Master of Arts in Counseling before they can be licensed at the state level and begin seeing patients.


Social workers and counselors also have different levels of certification.

For example, counselors may seek either a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) credential or a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) credential, both of which require a master’s-level degree or higher, and also require sitting for a state licensing examination. Additionally, to obtain either certification, it is mandatory to amass a certain number of hours of supervised field experience.

The LPCC credential is recommended for counselors who wish to help patients navigate mental health issues or behavioral problems, while the LMFT is more focused on helping patients work through areas of tension within their marriage or family life. An LMFT may also help patients process major life changes, including marriage separation, divorce, death or a child moving out of the house.

The most common certification for social workers is the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) designation, which requires an MSW and roughly two years of supervised practice. LCSWs tend to draw higher salaries than other social workers, have more autonomy and responsibility, and can play a more active role in guiding individuals suffering from mental health or substance misuse issues.

Counseling Careers

Aspiring mental health care professionals 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.

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 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 is 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 $49,880 in 2021. Employment is projected to grow much faster than average, with an expected growth of 16% between 2020 and 2030.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors help patients recover from their addiction to harmful substances. They assess their clients’ conditions and develop treatment strategies that are 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 misuse. Counselors work to remedy their clients’ dependence on drugs and alcohol. They also provide therapy for the families of addicts and alcoholics, as they may be negatively impacted by seeing their loved ones struggle with addiction.

The BLS reported that substance abuse counselors earned a median salary of $48,520 in 2021. Employment for this role is also projected to grow much faster than average, with an expected growth of 23% between 2020 and 2030.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors provide mental health support to a variety of 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 $48,520 in 2021. The BLS projects that employment of mental health counselors will grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030.

Behavioral Health Case Manager

A role that bears similarities to social work and counseling, careers in behavioral health case management are generally 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 $50,390 in 2021. The job outlook forecasts a slightly faster than average growth rate of 12% between 2020 and 2030.

School Counselor

Another career path that demonstrates the importance of counseling is the role of school counselor. School counselors may work in elementary, middle or high schools. They work one-on-one with students who are experiencing social or behavioral challenges that may disrupt the classroom or impede their own education.

School counselors may also help students develop strategies to learn more effectively and study more efficiently. They collaborate with teachers and parents to ensure that students are receiving the resources they need.

The BLS reports the median annual salary for this role was $60,510 in 2021, and the job outlook shows growth of 11% between 2020 and 2030.


Yet another career path to consider is that of a psychologist. Psychologists observe, interview and study individuals to provide a more accurate mental health diagnosis and develop plans for clinical intervention when needed. Psychologists may provide direct counseling services to patients, but many also take a more research-oriented path.

To become a psychologist, it is necessary to gain a doctoral-level degree.

The BLS notes a median annual salary of $81,040 in 2021, with projected job growth of 8% between 2020 and 2030, roughly on par with the average for all professions.

Social Worker vs. Counselor: Choose a Path That Makes a Difference

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 the Wake Forest University 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:

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist: Why a Career as a Counselor Can Be Fulfilling

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor? A Career Path in Clinical Mental Health

Serving Humanity: Career Opportunities in Mental Health


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

American Counseling Association, What is Professional Counseling?

Houston Chronicle, “Difference Between Clinical Social Work and a Licensed Professional Counselor”

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, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

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