What Is a Clinical Social Worker?

CSW, Social Worker

A clinical social worker is a healthcare professional who provides physical health, mental health, family and child welfare, and correction support services and treatment by using psychosocial approaches.

Clinical social work includes advocacy work with local, state, and federal agencies that are client-centered to provide people with information and referrals and guide them through processes. Additionally, clinical social workers work alongside other members of the healthcare team to promote a person's overall well-being.

Clinical social work is a specialty within social work that focuses on mental health and the prevention and treatment of biological, social, thought, emotional, and behavioral challenges. The term "clinical social worker" is sometimes shortened to "social worker," but a clinical social worker is actually a specific type of social worker focused on the clinical setting.

What Does "Psychosocial" Mean?

"Psychosocial" means the connection between social, cultural, and environmental factors and their effects on the mind and behaviors.

clinical social worker

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Clinical social workers work with a variety of people with many different challenges. They may cater to individuals, couples, families, or groups and adults, teens, or young children. Additionally, they work in different settings, with various populations, and treat many conditions and challenges.

Some work settings or concentrations for clinical social workers are:

  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Hospice care
  • Nursing homes or care facilities for older adults
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Child and family services
  • Forensics and court cases
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Schools
  • Public health agencies
  • Religious organizations
  • Uniformed and veterans services
  • Private practice

Conditions and Challenges Addressed

Clinical social workers help people with a variety of conditions and challenges, including:

  • Addiction
  • Aging
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral difficulties
  • Child welfare issues
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Life transitions
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mental health challenges
  • Parenting difficulties
  • Physical health challenges
  • Relationship challenges
  • Social difficulties
  • Stress
  • Trauma


Clinical social workers use a variety of methods when working with clients. Each approach is centered on the needs of the client and considers social dynamics, cultural influences, environmental factors, the mind or thought patterns of the individual, behavioral patterns, or a combination of these to address problems and improve that person's health and well-being.

Their approach includes assessment, treatment, and collaboration with other members of the healthcare team.


Assessment is the first phase of clinical social work care, and it is important to provide support customized to the individual or group. Social workers use diagnostic assessment tools to learn about the mental and emotional status of their clients and identify any mental health disorders or developmental disabilities they may have.

Clinical social workers also assess the spiritual, social, cultural, and environmental influences of physical health concerns and how these influences relate to thoughts and behaviors related to physical health challenges. They do this by administering tests and evaluating the results, which they are then able to use to develop customized plans to help clients based on their unique needs.


After clinical social workers complete the initial assessment process and create a plan, they are able to follow through with that plan to treat their clients. This may include talk therapy, teaching coping techniques, or a combination of options. Treatment may be provided one-on-one or in a group setting, online or in person. Additionally, they advocate for their clients and work with other members of the healthcare team and organizations that may be involved in their care.

Talk Therapy and Coping Techniques

Types of therapy that a social worker may use include:

  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Crisis intervention
  • Education
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Visualization


Another important role of clinical social workers is to communicate with and work with other members of the care team. They do this by:

  • Referring their clients to other professionals for additional support
  • Keeping notes of their work with clients and updates to share as necessary
  • Communicating with other professionals involved in the care of their clients

This helps to ensure their clients receive the care they need, and that the treatment provided by each member of the care team works well together to address all areas of need.

Clinical Social Worker vs. Other Mental Health Professionals

There are many similarities among mental health professionals, such as clinical social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors. However, there are also differences that set them apart.

Psychiatrists go to medical school before specializing in mental healthcare and they focus more on medicinal treatments, while psychologists at the master's or doctorate level focus more on talk therapy or research. Psychologists can also prescribe medications in some states if they receive additional training, but clinical social workers cannot.

Counselors and therapists are similar to clinical social workers in that they cannot prescribe medications, but there are also differences among them. Counselors support people with mental health challenges through goal setting and other methods while therapists treat more with talk therapy. Clinical social workers can provide counseling and therapy, and they provide support through connection with the community and other resources.


Clinical social work is a specialty within social work. Additionally, clinical social workers may be generalists and work in many different areas, or they may choose to focus in one specific area. Regardless of choosing a specialization or not, some states require courses or training in specific areas. Examples of this include aging or long-term care and the assessment and reporting of child abuse.

Clinical Social Work Subspecialties

  • Addiction
  • Aging
  • Child welfare
  • Community
  • Disability
  • Education/school
  • Mental health
  • Military and veteran welfare
  • Physical health
  • Substance abuse
  • Trauma

Training and Certification

Clinical social workers receive a master's degree in social work following a bachelor's degree. After that, they must complete at least two years of work, with roughly 3,000-4,000 hours of supervision, to learn social work in the clinical setting. Then they must pass a licensing exam. Requirements may vary by state.

Appointment Tips

One of the best ways to prepare for an appointment with a clinical social worker is to ask questions when scheduling the appointment. This can help to get a better idea of what to expect from your social worker. Sometimes there is paperwork to complete before the appointment.

Additionally, since part of the role of a clinical social worker is to advocate for the client with other healthcare professionals and organizations, it can be helpful to gather and bring any information that may have been provided by others involved in your care.

A Word From Verywell

If you are navigating a health or life challenge, a clinical social worker may be able to help. They are able to help support mental, emotional, and behavioral health through transitions, physical and mental health diagnoses and treatments, social challenges, and processes involving work with local, state, and federal agencies. Talk to a member of your healthcare team if you think you may benefit from the support of a clinical social worker.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Clinical social work.

  2. American Board of Clinical Social Work. What is clinical social work?.

  3. New York State Society for Clinical Social Work. Definition what clinical social workers do.

  4. American Psychological Association. What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers?

  5. Social Work Licensure. Counseling vs. social work.

  6. Social Work Guide. How to become a social worker: A quick guide.

By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.