Become a Mental Health Social Worker: Education and Licensure Requirements

Written by Nalea Ko
Last Updated: June 2023

Do you have a calling to social work? Mental health social workers are committed to promoting social welfare. No matter the populations served, every state requires mental health social workers to hold a master’s in social work (MSW) and a current license.

This page explores how you can become a mental health social worker. Keep reading to discover step-by-step career requirements and salary expectations.

What Does a Mental Health Social Worker Do?

Before you can provide behavioral health services as a social worker, you need to get licensed. A license allows you to assess, diagnose, and treat mental illness and substance abuse. Mental health social workers, also called psychiatric social workers, provide one-on-one, group, and family treatment in a wide array of settings.

Populations served include those experiencing homelessness, incarcerated individuals, people from underserved communities, or children and adolescents in foster care.

You can work in churches, community mental health agencies, psychiatric hospitals, private practice, substance abuse treatment centers, and schools. Roughly 119,800 mental health and substance abuse social workers are employed in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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Steps to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Check with your state’s licensing board for specific requirements to become a mental health social worker. However, most mental health social workers can follow these common steps:

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree: The first step in your journey toward becoming a mental health social worker involves earning a social work degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). It takes about four years and 120 credits to earn a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, which qualifies you for advanced standing in a master’s program. Keep in mind that you can get into a master’s program with a psychology or sociology degree.
  2. Earn an MSW Degree from an Accredited Program: To qualify for licensure in your state and to be eligible for employment as a mental health social worker, you need to earn a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work degree. It will take 2-3 years to graduate, including the required field experience. MSW degrees generally require about 60 credits.
  3. Pass ASWB Exam: Most states require that you apply for licensure and pay all fees to qualify for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) master exam. The exam costs $230 and comprises 170 questions that you answer over four hours. The 10 sections include human development and behavior, direct and indirect practice, assessment, diagnosis, and intervention planning.
  4. Apply for State Licensure: You need to complete an online or print application and pay the fees through your state’s social work board. The experiential hours required for licensure vary by state.
  5. Apply for Certification: You can showcase your competency in specialized areas of social work by earning certifications. Credentials demonstrate your expertise to employers, which can lead to more money.

Education Requirements for Mental Health Social Workers

You need at least a master’s in social work to become a mental health social worker. You can take a shortcut by earning a BSW degree, instead of a non-social work degree. A BSW program provides the foundation for an accelerated master’s program.

BSW Degree

A BSW program gives you the foundational education in social work theories, research, and the practical skills for a career as a mental health social worker. Although you need a master’s degree to get licensed, a BSW degree qualifies for advanced standing in an MSW program. However, majors, such as sociology, psychology, and political science, will suffice for admission into many MSW programs.

  • Admission Requirements: Apply as a first-year applicant or transfer student. Applications commonly require high school or college transcripts, letters of recommendation, and admissions essays.
  • Program Curriculum: Social work practice and labs, social work policy, human behavior and social environment, social work research, and field practicums
  • Time to Complete: Four years for full-time students
  • Skills Learned: Critical thinking, problem-solving, and organizational skills

MSW Degree

If you have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college, you can enroll in an MSW program. Some master’s programs require a BSW or a degree from a related major. An MSW is also a prerequisite to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

  • Admission Requirements: A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college, or a BSW degree for advanced-standing programs. Typically, you also need to submit college transcripts, a statement of purpose, a resume, and three letters of recommendation.
  • Program Curriculum: Courses may include research methodology, social welfare policy, and field work. You will also take concentrations, such as mental health and trauma and addictions and substance misuse.
  • Time to Complete: 2-3 years
  • Skills Learned: Advanced research methods, micro and macro practice skills, theoretical perspectives, cultural competence practice, and leadership and organizational skills

Licensure and Certification for Mental Health Social Workers

Social work licensing is a matter of state law. In any state, however, you need to get licensed to practice as a mental health social worker. LMSWs and LCSWs are the most common licenses that states offer for mental health social workers. It takes a master’s degree, qualifying field experience, and a passing score of the master’s ASWB exam to get licensed.

Licenses have varying post-master’s experiential requirements. To become an LCSW usually requires spending about 2,000 hours providing assessment-based treatment, diagnosis, and psychotherapy. LMSWs may not need direct client experience to get licensed. However, many licenses require mandatory continuing education during the registration period.

Certifications may count toward continuing education requirements. The National Association of Social Workers offers the certified social worker in healthcare (C-SWHC) credential, which serves as verification of your skills and experience. In addition, certified social workers often receive better compensation. You need a master’s degree, two years of work experience, or 3,000 hours on the job, and a license to qualify for the C-SWHC certification.

Career Outlook for Mental Health Social Workers

According to the BLS, mental health and substance abuse workers make an average annual salary of $60,130. There’s room to earn a higher salary if you work in home health care services or office administration services, two industries that pay mental health and substance abuse social workers average annual salaries of $88,710 and $87,400, respectively.

Your social work duties depend on the setting. Mental health social workers may conduct clinical psychosocial assessments and create service plans at a local nonprofit, or they may provide crisis intervention for children in foster care.

After earning your MSW degree, you can secure a career as a mental health social worker through local nonprofits job boards, contacts you make during your field experience, and/or your college career office.

Social work offers considerable job security. From 2021-2031, the BLS projects an 11% job growth rate. That translates to the addition of about 13,300 in that 10-year period.

Learn more about social worker salaries in our comprehensive salary guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements to become a mental health social worker?

You need a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work degree to get licensed and hired. Getting licensed as a mental health social worker means you meet the educational, field experience, and exam requirements of your state. The state’s licensing board requires a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work degree. Professional credentials, while not required for licensure, help you stand out to employers.

How long does it take to become a mental health social worker?

The undergraduate and graduate requirements needed to become a mental health social worker take at least six years. If you study full time, without interruption, you can earn your BSW degree in four years. Your MSW degree will take about 2-3 years to finish. Mental health social workers also spend 2-3 years completing the contact hours required to become licensed.

What degree is best for a social worker?

Social workers take an oath to be of service to clients and challenge social injustices. A master’s degree is the minimum standard at the state level required to become a mental health social worker. An MSW degree also provides the contact hours in social work needed to get licensed.

How do you know if social work is for you?

Social work is a calling that requires a commitment to a career serving humanity and fighting social injustices. To succeed in social work, you need to be passionate about political and social policies, work to help others, and stay up-to-date on emerging research and literature.