What is Clinical Social Work?

Clinical social work is a healthcare profession based on theories and methods of prevention and treatment in providing mental-health/healthcare services, with special focus on behavioral and bio-psychosocial problems and disorders. Clinical social work’s unique attributes include use of the person-in-environment perspective, respect for the primacy of client rights and strong therapeutic alliance between client and practitioner. With 250,000 practitioners serving millions of client consumers, clinical social workers constitute the largest group of mental-health/healthcare providers in the nation.

The knowledge base of clinical social work includes theories of biological, psychological and social development, diversity and cultural competency, interpersonal relationships, family and group dynamics, mental disorders, addictions, impacts of illness, trauma or injury and the effects of the physical, social and cultural environment. This knowledge is inculcated in social work graduate school and is fused with direct-practice skills that are developed by the practitioner during a period of at least two years of post-graduate experience under clinical supervision. This period should suffice to prepare the clinical social worker for autonomous practice and state-licensure as a clinical social work professional. In the years that follow, clinical social workers may pursue an advanced clinical practice or may decide to specialize in one or more areas.

Clinical social work is notable for the versatility of its practitioners and the variety of their roles, including that of team member and team leader in a multi-disciplinary setting. Client consumers - individuals, couples, families and groups - benefit from a variety of direct services, including assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, intervention/treatment, evaluation of outcomes and case management. Clinical social work settings and services include, but are not limited to, the following (in alphabetical order):

  • child and family services
  • clinics
  • court and forensic venues
  • elder care facilities
  • home health care
  • hospice
  • hospitals
  • not-for-profit agencies and organizations
  • palliative and rehabilitative care
  • private practice offices
  • public and private schools
  • public sector health/mental health
  • rehabilitation facilities
  • religious/spiritual organizations
  • residential treatment
  • rural healthcare
  • social services
  • uniformed services and Veterans Affairs

The flexible and skillful application of knowledge, theories and methods in a bio-psychosocial approach is a hallmark of clinical social work. Interventions - the direct person-to-person(s) process - are conducted with people of all ages and range in nature from preventive, crisis and psycho-educational services to collaborative client advocacy and brief and long-term counseling or psychotherapy. Typically, clinical social workers supervise and consult with professional colleagues and may engage in indirect practice (e.g. administration, research, teaching, writing). It is a standard of practice for clinical social workers to engage in career-long continuing clinical education and to adhere to a professional code of ethics.

Clinical Social Workers

The nation’s 250,000 clinical social workers provide more behavioral healthcare, of more types and in more settings, than any other profession. Working in both the public and private sectors, including many non-profit programs, clinical social workers are the mainstay of the American mental healthcare system.

Clinical social workers typically provide bio-psychosocial services, including diagnosis and clinical treatment (e.g. psychotherapy), that are reimbursable under health insurance programs and by every major self-insured company in America. In the public sector, many agencies, departments, and programs specifically recognize clinical social workers as direct, autonomous (non-supervised) providers of mental healthcare and related services.

Recognized with their own title, clinical social workers, and their own level of state licensure (to protect the public) in every state in the union, clinical social workers are mental healthcare professionals similar to clinical psychologists. While they are sometimes confused with other types of social worker, clinical social workers are very different in their services and professional attainments, which include board-certification signifying competence in clinical knowledge and skills.

In federal programs, clinical social workers - as distinct from social workers - are specifically named, and their services are described, in the laws and regulations governing the following:

  • Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan
  • Military Health Care System, including TRICARE
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
  • Family and Medical Leave Act