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Clinical Social Worker vs. Therapist: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

A career in social work or therapy can be very rewarding. If you’re interested in helping people and have a passion for psychology, then these may be the perfect fields for you. Clinical social workers and therapists both work with patients to help them improve their mental health, but there are several key differences between these two professions. In this article, we discuss the similarities and differences between clinical social workers and therapists, and we provide information on what you may need to pursue these careers.

What is a Clinical Social Worker?

Clinical Social Workers are mental health professionals who provide direct patient care services to individuals, families and groups. They diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. Clinical Social Workers also conduct psychotherapy, which is a form of counseling that helps patients manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Clinical Social Workers may work in private practices, hospitals, clinics or government agencies. They often work with other health care professionals, such as psychiatrists, to provide comprehensive care to patients.

What is a Therapist?

Therapists provide psychological support and treatment to patients who are experiencing mental or emotional distress. They work with patients to help them understand and cope with their feelings, develop healthy coping mechanisms and make positive changes in their lives. Therapists may work with individuals, couples or families in one-on-one sessions, or they may lead group therapy sessions. They may also work with patients in a hospital setting or in a school or community setting. Therapists use a variety of techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help their patients achieve their goals.

Clinical Social Worker vs. Therapist

Here are the main differences between a clinical social worker and a therapist.

Job Duties

Although both clinical social workers and therapists work with patients to address their mental health concerns, the way they go about doing so differs. The primary function of a clinical social worker is to identify and resolve issues that affect a patient’s ability to function in society. This involves identifying problems like substance abuse, domestic violence or financial troubles and developing solutions for them. In comparison, a therapist’s job is to help patients overcome specific mental health issues by providing them with tools and techniques to manage those issues. They may also refer patients to other resources, such as community support programs.

Job Requirements

Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree in social work from an accredited institution and complete two years of post-graduate clinical experience under supervision. They must also pass the Clinical Social Work Association national exam. A state license is required to practice independently.

Therapists can enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, but most positions require a master’s degree or higher. Some states also require therapists to be licensed. To become licensed, therapists must complete supervised clinical experience and pass an exam.

Work Environment

Both clinical social workers and therapists work in a variety of environments, including hospitals, schools, community centers and private practices. They may also work for government agencies or non-profit organizations that provide mental health services to people who can’t afford them.

Clinical social workers often work more directly with patients than therapists do. For example, they might meet with clients at their homes or workplaces to help them develop treatment plans. In contrast, therapists typically see fewer clients per week than clinical social workers and spend more time working on paperwork and completing administrative tasks.


Both clinical social workers and therapists use active listening skills to understand their patients’ experiences and feelings. They also need to be able to build rapport with their patients to create a trusting relationship.

Clinical social workers may use more assessment skills than therapists as they often are responsible for making diagnoses. They also may use case management skills to connect patients with resources, like housing or food assistance. Therapists typically focus on providing treatment to patients and may use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy or art therapy.

Both professionals need to have excellent communication skills to document patient progress and communicate with other members of the patient’s care team. They also both need to be able to handle emotionally charged situations and maintain a high level of professionalism.


The average salary for a clinical social worker is $71,399 per year, while the average salary for a therapist is $61,811 per year. Both of these salaries can vary depending on the type of work you do, your location and your experience level.


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