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What is a Social Worker?

Also known as: Direct Service Social Worker.

There are two main types of social workers: direct-service social workers, who help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, and clinical social workers, who diagnose and treat mental, behavioural, and emotional issues. A social worker can work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, schools, hospitals, and private practices.

What does a Social Worker do?

A social worker helps people cope with challenges in every stage of their lives. They help with a wide range of situations, such as adopting a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Social workers work with many populations, including children, people with disabilities, and people with addictions.

Direct-service social workers typically do the following:

  • Identify people who need help
  • Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Develop plans to improve their clients’ well-being
  • Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Research and refer clients to community resources, such as food stamps, child care, and healthcare
  • Help clients work with government agencies to apply for and receive benefits such as Medicare
  • Respond to crisis situations, such as natural disasters or child abuse
  • Advocate for and help clients get resources that would improve their well-being
  • Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Evaluate services provided to ensure that they are effective

Clinical social workers typically do the following:

  • Diagnose and treat mental, behavioural, and emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression
  • Provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy
  • Assess clients’ histories, backgrounds, and situations to understand their needs, as well as their strengths and weaknesses
  • Develop a treatment plan with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals
  • Encourage clients to discuss their emotions and experiences to develop a better understanding of themselves and their relationships
  • Help clients adjust to changes in their life, such as a divorce or being laid-off
  • Work with clients to develop strategies to change behaviour or cope with difficult situations
  • Refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals
  • Evaluate their clients’ progress and, if necessary, adjust the treatment plan

Many clinical social workers work in private practice. Some work in a group practice with other social workers or mental health professionals. Others work alone in a solo practice. In private practice, clinical social workers often do administrative and recordkeeping tasks. Among these tasks is working with clients and insurance companies to receive payment for their services. In addition, social workers market their practice to bring in new clients and to network with other professionals who may recommend them.

What is the workplace of a Social Worker like?

Social workers typically work in the following settings:

  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Nursing homes
  • Community mental health clinics
  • Private practices
  • State and local governments
  • Schools
  • Colleges and universities
  • Substance abuse clinics
  • Military bases and hospitals

Although most social workers work in an office, they may spend a lot of time away from the office visiting clients. School social workers may be assigned to multiple schools and travel around the school district to see students. Understaffing and large case loads may make the work stressful.

How can I become a Social Worker?

A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for entry-level positions. However, some employers may hire workers who have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology or sociology. BSW programs prepare students for direct-service positions such as caseworker or mental health assistant. These programs teach students about diverse populations, human behaviour, and social welfare policy. All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship. Some positions, including those in schools and in healthcare, frequently require a master’s degree in social work (MSW). All clinical social workers must have an MSW.

MSWs generally take two years to complete. Some programs allow those with a BSW to earn their MSW in one year. MSW programs prepare students for work in their chosen specialty and develop the skills to do clinical assessments, manage a large number of clients, and take on supervisory duties. All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

A BSW is not required to enter MSW programs. In fact, a degree in almost any major is acceptable. However, coursework in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science are recommended. Licensure varies by jurisdiction. All regions have some type of licensure or certification requirement. All require clinical social workers to be licensed. However, some regions provide exemptions for clinical social workers who work in government agencies.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker usually requires a master’s degree in social work and two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after graduation. After completing their supervised experience, clinical social workers must pass an exam to be licensed.

Although most jurisdictions also have licenses for nonclinical social workers, these licenses are often optional.

  • How To Become A Social Worker

  • There are many areas a social worker can work in, but there are a few areas that are more popular than others: Medical/Public Health, Substance Abuse, Mental Health, Child Welfare, and School Social Work.

    What is the difference between a social worker and a psychologist?

    A social worker acts as a client advocate, educator, coordinator of care, and an adviser. He or she will work as a liaison with the family, and will look at helping with finances, admissions, discharges, housing, follow-up appointments to outside services, and is sometimes the link to the courts and any legal procedures.

    A psychologist works with individuals, couples, and families by identifying and diagnosing mental behavioural and emotional disorders. He or she will then develop a treatment plan, and if necessary, collaborate with doctors or social workers to help the patient carry through with the desired changes. In a nutshell, a social worker addresses problems within our society. A psychologist addresses problems due to our society.

    Do social workers ever regret entering social work because of the (relatively) low pay?

    Social workers are dedicated people that provide valuable services to families and their communities. Unfortunately, the social work profession is known for its low pay. Many social workers regret getting into the profession for this reason.

    What is interesting to note is that it depends on which branch of social work you will choose that will dictate your salary. Social workers will not be able to make a good salary if they work, for example, at a homeless shelter. It would be better to volunteer their time at a homeless shelter instead, and keep that as a charitable aspect of their life.

    If one wants to make a respectable salary, then choosing a branch of social work that commands more money is necessary. For example: providing therapy for veterans via the VA, providing child assessments for divorce lawyers, providing medical discharge planning, supervising child abuse investigations, etc., are some options. It is very important to define the professional aspect of social work as something different from the charitable aspect of social work in order to avoid disappointment.

    What is some good advice for social work students?

    Students choose this profession based on a belief that with good intentions and a love for helping people, all clients will benefit and flourish from their services. Unfortunately, not all clients want to change, or they are unable to, for a variety of reasons. Some clients will be grateful, some won't progress the way you would have hoped. Every client's life will be touched by you in different ways. It's good to be realistic about what to expect when going into this career.

    What is it like being a social worker?

    Most people don't understand exactly what this career entails. As a social worker, you'll spend your days advocating for others and helping them wade through difficult situations. There are clients whose stories will be sad, and their words will trigger thoughts and feelings in you. It's important to keep up your own personal therapy (in fact, it's recommended), and to use your supervisor to process the feelings that clients trigger in you. It's good to have the mindset of expecting the unexpected, as something could go wrong on any given day, considering how many people you'll be working with. One of the hardest parts of the job is not dealing with clients, but figuring out how to navigate the system, the culture, dealing with ethical challenges, and learning the best way to work with peers.



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    Further Reading

    • A Day In The Life Of A Social Worker

      Every social worker is uniquely qualified to help people right in their own environment, by considering the impact of all the different aspects of that person’s life and working to ensure that person’s well-being, prevent crises, and to counsel individuals, families, and communities to get people the help they need from the best resources available.

    • Skills & Personal Qualities Required To Be A Social Worker

      The role of a social worker varies a bit by setting. Despite the variable roles, some skills and qualities are consistently needed.

    • 10 Things Every New Social Worker Needs To Know About People

      This work can be scary, as it is about people’s lives. I am happy to have this opportunity to tell you some things I wish someone had explained to me when I started working as a child protective services worker.

    • Social Work Profession

      According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. The profession is expected to grow by 25% between 2010 and 2020. More than 650,000 people currently hold social work degrees.

    • What Is A Social Worker?

      Are you looking for a career that is rewarding yet challenging? Do you want to contribute to society by helping people overcome difficulties and improve their lives?

    • What Social Workers Do

      Social Workers are usually employed in hospitals, community health centers, mental health clinics, schools, advocacy organizations, government departments, social service agencies, child welfare settings, family service agencies, correctional facilities, social housing organizations, family courts, employee assistance programs and private counselling, school boards, and consultation agencies.

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