Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/16/2022
It’s normal to feel stressed out, anxious and unhappy with life from time to time. It’s also normal to deal with mental health issues. In fact, an estimated 21 percent of US adults dealt with some type of mental illness in 2020.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, or if you simply feel stressed or overwhelmed by life, you may have considered reaching out to a social worker or therapist.
Social workers and therapists both help people to overcome crises and obstacles, but there are several major differences between them in terms of educational paths, training and the services that they offer.
We’ve discussed these differences below and explained what you can do to seek help if you’re feeling mentally unwell and need someone to talk to.
Social workers are professionals who help individuals and families prevent, cope with and deal with problems that occur in their daily lives.
These problems may include adapting to a new environment, being diagnosed with a severe or terminal illness, dealing with workplace stress, having a child or dealing with a substance abuse issue.
Social workers complete a range of tasks to help people, including:
Assisting people in stressful and/or tough life situations
Identifying people’s requirements and determining if they need professional help
Working with people to identify their goals and help them make meaningful progress
Helping people to access social services, such as financial support or healthcare
Providing therapy for people in need, including forms of behavioral therapy
Responding to mental health emergencies and helping people access crisis support
Following up with people to assess their progress
Maintaining records for mental health professionals and other healthcare providers
It’s common for social workers to specialize in a certain social work career path, such as child and family care, school and education social work, substance abuse social work or healthcare social work.
Many social workers also perform macro social work by working with community organizations, government departments and other groups to create and improve social programs for people in need.
Many social workers complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree in either social work or a related field from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Many social workers also have educational qualifications in related fields, such as public policy, psychology or social science.
Some social workers are licensed clinical social workers, or LCSWs, meaning they’ve finished a graduate degree in social work and obtained social work licensure in their state — a process that requires a supervised counseling practicum or internship.
In addition to identifying people in need of help, clinical social workers also help to diagnose and treat emotional and behavioral issues, including some anxiety and depressive disorders.
Therapists are mental health professionals who offer psychotherapy, or talk therapy, for people with mental health concerns.
The term “therapist” is commonly used to refer to any professional that delivers therapy, but it’s typically reserved for people with an advanced degree in psychology.
A professional therapist will typically have a master’s degree and undergo approximately 3,000 hours of clinical internships. Some mental health professionals that offer talk therapy, such as clinical psychologists, undergo additional education and specialized training.
It’s important to understand that licensing requirements for therapists can vary from one state to another, as can the titles used to refer to therapy providers.
Many therapists work in private practice, although others may provide psychotherapy as part of a hospital or other medical center.
Therapists offer a range of services for people in need of mental health care, including individual therapy (talking one on one to a client in a private setting) and group therapy (talking to multiple clients in a group setting, often referred to as a support group).
Cognitive therapy. This type of therapy involves focusing on your thoughts, rather than actions. As part of cognitive therapy, you may learn new techniques for controlling your thoughts and changing the effects of thinking on your emotions and behavior.
Behavioral therapy. This type of therapy involves identifying and developing behaviors that affect your mental wellbeing. Some forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) combine elements of cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy.
Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies. These forms of therapy involve using analysis to identify the unconscious meanings and motivations behind thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Humanistic therapy. This type of therapy focuses on changing negative behaviors and thought processes by emphasizing your capacity to make rational, meaningful decisions that improve your life.
Integrative or holistic therapy. This approach draws from different types of therapy to provide tailored, personalized treatment.
Family therapy. This type of therapy aims to reduce distress and conflict within couples or families. It often involves dealing with disputes, substance abuse and mental health issues that affect family members.
As licensed counselors, therapists focus mainly on giving talk therapy to clients, not on helping clients access financial help or make use of other social services. Therapists also usually don’t advocate for changes to existing laws, policies or social programs.
So, what are the key differences between licensed social workers and therapists? Although both types of professionals provide similar services in certain situations, there are some fundamental differences between social workers and therapists in terms of expertise and clinical practice.
Social workers and therapists typically have a similar educational background, although specific qualifications and training differ between the two professions.
Most social workers have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in either social work or a related field, while therapists typically have a master’s degree in psychotherapy or a doctoral degree such as a PhD, MD or PsyD.
Clinical social workers require licensing in all states. To gain a license, a social worker will need to have a master’s degree in social work from an accredited university, take part in a supervised clinical training program after graduating and complete a clinical exam.
Licensing for therapists can vary. Some therapists practice as licensed professional counselors, while other mental health providers that offer therapy may practice as psychologists, psychiatric nurses or psychiatrists.
Although both social workers and therapists both help people with mental health difficulties, they do so in different ways.
Social workers offer a range of services for people in need, including identifying people’s needs, assessing their life situation, assisting people in adjusting to new circumstances and challenges, monitoring people’s progress and, if appropriate, referring people to appropriate care.
Many social workers offer assistance outside of a therapy environment, such as by helping their clients to access social services and community resources.
In certain circumstances, social workers may provide psychotherapy services to people dealing with stress, mental illness or a difficult life situation. Alternatively, a social worker may refer you to a therapist if you have an emotional or behavioral health issue.
Therapists, on the other hand, typically provide mental health counseling for people dealing with mental illnesses, severe stress or other life challenges. You might work with a therapist on their own or with another type of mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist.
In general, the scope of a therapist’s responsibilities is generally narrower. While social workers focus on a range of issues that can affect a person’s wellbeing, a therapist will typically focus on a person’s mental health, personal life and needs and in a therapeutic environment.
If you’re dealing with severe stress, believe you may have a mental illness or simply need to talk to someone about your situation in life, it’s important to seek help.
Social workers and therapists can both provide support when you’re going through difficult times in life and feel like you need assistance.
You may be referred to a social worker by your healthcare provider, an organization in your area or as part of a care program.
You can find a therapist in your area by asking your primary care provider for a referral, asking a friend or family member for recommendations, using a therapist directory or searching online for “therapist near me” and comparing local results.
We also offer individual therapy as part of our range of online mental health services, letting you quickly and conveniently connect with a professional counselor to access care from the comfort and privacy of your own home.
Finally, you can learn more about how to cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns using our free online mental health resources and content.