Social Work vs. Psychology: Key Differences
December 21, 2022
Social Work vs. Psychology: Key Differences
Mental health care professionals provide valuable and life-changing services to their patients every day. With the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that almost 1 in 5 adults in the United States are living with the challenges of mental illness, the care and support that mental health professionals provide is critical to patients, families, employers, and society as a whole.
Within the mental health care field, a variety of career options are available. For aspiring professionals, choosing which direction to take may be easier with a thorough understanding of the differences between social work and psychology and the training required to practice therapy in each field.
While mental health care practices in social work and psychology are related, the two fields are very different, with social work revolving around providing patients with resources to function well in society, while psychology focuses on the mental health and wellness of the individual.
For individuals looking to build a future in mental health care, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and the right certifications is key, providing them with the foundation they need to become knowledgeable and capable care providers.
What Does a Social Worker Do? ¶
Health care systems require a multitude of programs, resources, and qualified professionals to function. For many patients, navigating the healthcare system and gaining access to the treatments and resources they need can be incredibly challenging.
Social workers are the professionals working within healthcare organizations, communities, and government agencies who are tasked with guiding patients throughout the care process, providing them with counseling and directing them toward the support they need.
Social workers may be responsible for completing the following tasks, among others:
- Assessing clients’ needs and creating care programs
- Helping clients adjust to challenges
- Providing counseling, guidance, and resource referrals
- Responding to crisis situations or assisting with mental health emergencies
- Researching and advocating for improved programming and resources
Through collaboration with other healthcare professionals and public officials, social workers have the opportunity to steer their patients and their communities in the right direction, fighting against the stigma of seeking mental health care and advocating for much-needed resources.
What Does a Psychologist Do? ¶
Psychologists are care providers who help individuals manage the challenges of mental illness. While both social workers and psychologists are skilled professionals who provide counseling, psychologists are trained to employ evidence-based practices such as psychodynamic, humanistic, or cognitive-behavioral therapy to assist their patients. These techniques allow psychologists to assess their patients’ mental states accurately and then help them manage stress, anxiety, chronic conditions, and unhealthy behavioral tendencies such as substance misuse.
Typical tasks and activities for psychologists include:
- Researching mental health topics, such as illnesses, behavioral problems, neurological determinants, social or psychological determinants of health, and psychologists' role in preventing disease
- Assessing, diagnosing, and counseling patients
- Managing and overseeing a patient’s recovery
- Referring patients to other professionals or collaborating with primary care providers to create a care plan with the best possible outcome
- Educating patients and their families or support groups on ways in which they can encourage recovery or the cultivation of a healthy lifestyle
Equipped with in-depth knowledge of the ways in which people think, psychologists are trained to administer psychological evaluations and tests to determine problems in thinking, feeling, and behavior. With a well-rounded education and the advanced skills gained from a degree in psychology, psychologists can provide individuals with the strategies they need to improve their lives and reach their goals.
Social Work vs. Psychology: How Are They Similar ¶
Careers in both social work and psychology play a vital role in the mental health side of our medical system. The demand for professionals able to fight the stigma surrounding mental health care and provide those suffering from mental illness with the support and resources they need is steadily on the rise.
The efforts of social workers in this area can come in the form of community outreach, one-on-one counseling, patient referral, or even simply guiding individuals through the administrative processes required to receive care. While social workers often address mental health care from a bird’s-eye view, assisting both individuals and their communities, psychologists provide focused attention to each patient’s history, emotions, mental condition, and disorders.
Both helping professionals, social workers and psychologists assist their patients in becoming functional and successful members of society. Drawing from a mutual foundation in psychology and human behavior, experts in both professions help patients identify the root cause of their health challenges and assist them on their road to recovery.
Using holistic care strategies such as counseling, education for the family or support system, health and wellness programs, and referring patients to other specialists and primary care providers for medication or additional treatment, both social workers and psychologists guide patients toward recovery and success.
Social Work vs. Psychology: How Are They Different? ¶
Social workers and psychologists are most clearly differentiated by the education they have, the therapy they provide, and the settings in which they commonly work.
The process of becoming a social worker vs. psychologist involves differing but extensive schooling and experience. Both professions require the completion of a bachelor’s degree; however, while social workers must obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), psychologists are required to complete a doctoral degree such as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), or Doctor of Education (EdD) to be a fully certified psychologist.
Additionally, the focus of these advanced degrees — and the work experience that follows — will vary between the two professions. Master’s studies in social work often emphasize connecting patients with their communities and resources, using practical work experience and supervised placement within local agencies to prepare social workers for the different challenges and opportunities within their socioeconomic area.
Contrastingly, doctoral education in psychology emphasizes research and the scientific method behind the study of human behavior, focusing more closely on the behaviors or disorders and their treatments as opposed to community outreach. This pursuit requires psychologists to complete one to two years of supervised clinical practice prior to sitting for their licensure examinations.
Therapy and Treatment ¶
While both professions employ counseling to better assess and serve their patients, psychologists are trained to treat mental illness and help patients cope with emotional issues, whereas social workers use counseling as a guide for choosing resources and compiling a care strategy for individuals.
Using their advanced knowledge in human behavior, mental illness, or psychological disorders, psychologists work to help their patients learn about, adapt to, and cope with their psychological challenges. This can involve using treatments such as psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy to tackle challenges including alcohol or drug addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, serious mental illness, or other difficulties in a patient’s life.
Rooted in the science and research of human behavior, cognitive-behavioral therapy works based on the principal idea that unhelpful thinking patterns, learned behaviors, and other coping mechanisms related to psychological disorders are at the heart of a patient’s struggles. By identifying which thought patterns or learned habits a patient is struggling with, psychologists can provide them with alternative techniques, thought exercises, coping strategies, or problem-solving skills to improve their quality of life.
Turn Your Passion Into a Career ¶
While a look at social workers vs. psychologists reveals many differences, one thing they have in common is a passion for listening to, understanding, and helping people. If you share that passion, you have the opportunity to build a career that makes a positive and long-lasting difference in the lives of others.
With the advanced knowledge and skills required to provide individuals with the strategies and resources they need to work toward self-improvement and cultivate a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their families, social workers and psychologists impact both individual lives and communities.
Building a career in social work or psychology requires dedication and a well-rounded education. For future professionals, pursuing a degree such as Athens State University’s online bachelor’s in psychology can be a key stepping stone. With fully online courses based in a supportive learning environment and providing students with the option to choose between a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, the program from Athens State was created to allow students to fast-track their studies and begin their careers.
Discover how you can make a positive impact with a degree in psychology.
American Psychological Association, “What Do Practicing Psychologists Do?"
American Psychological Association, “What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?"
American Psychological Association, “What Is the Difference Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Workers?"
Canadian Psychological Association, “What Is a Psychologist?”
Cleveland Clinic, “Psychologist”
Houston Chronicle, “Differences Between Psychologists and Clinical Social Workers”
National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness
Positive Psychology, “Social Work vs Psychology, Counseling, & Occupational Therapy”
Psychology Today, “Psych Careers”