Advocacy in Action

Through the stories we share, the Admissions Team at Baylor University hopes to inspire and educate future leaders in social work.

Mental Health Counselor vs. Social Worker: The MSW Connection

Written by Baylor School of Social Work Team on 05.21.24

Mental health. It’s a topic that’s finally getting the attention it deserves. With that attention comes the need for professionals qualified to provide mental health support.    

Both mental health counselors and social workers play an important role in supporting individuals with mental health challenges. And while these professions might seem different on the surface, there’s a connection. Success for both careers begins by earning a Master of Social Work.

Read on to learn more about what a mental health counselor does and how earning an MSW can set you up for future success.

What Is a Mental Health Counselor? 

A mental health counselor specializes in providing counseling and therapy to individuals, couples, and families facing mental and emotional challenges. 

Counselors typically earn a master’s degree. Some examples include an MSW, a Master of Counseling, a Master of Psychology, or a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy. They’re also generally required to complete a specific number of supervised clinical hours to become licensed.  

To be successful in this area, counselors should be skilled in active listening, empathy, communication, and assessment (skills that are taught in an MSW program). They’re also trained in various therapeutic approaches and techniques including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and mindfulness-based techniques. 

As a counselor, you might work in a private practice, community health center, hospital, or school, and with individuals dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, relationship issues, and more

How an MSW Lays the Groundwork for Mental Health Counseling

As we mentioned, earning an MSW provides you with a skill set that goes beyond what someone might learn in other graduate programs. 

Basically, mental health counselors often provide therapy and counseling services that focus on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. Social workers learn how to see the whole client — meaning as they consider a person's mental health, they address the social, emotional, economic, and environmental factors that impact overall health and well-being.

By completing an MSW program, students also become skilled in the following areas that are key to counseling success: 

  • Active Listening and Empathy. MSW programs teach the importance of developing these skills through hands-on practice, role-playing exercises, and supervised practicums. Students learn to attentively listen, validate emotions, and understand the unique experiences of their clients.
  • Cultural Competence. MSW programs place a strong emphasis on cultural competence and encourage students to recognize and appreciate the diversity of clients they may encounter. Students gain the knowledge and skills needed to work with individuals from different cultural backgrounds and to tailor their interventions accordingly.
  • Assessment and Diagnosis. A crucial aspect of mental health counseling is conducting thorough assessments and making accurate diagnoses. MSW students learn about various assessment tools and techniques, which enables them to evaluate clients’ mental health needs, identify their strengths, and develop targeted treatment plans.
  • Ethical and Professional Standards. An MSW program instills a strong foundation in ethical and professional standards. Students are taught about the importance of ethical conduct, confidentiality, and maintaining boundaries in their counseling practice. They learn the legal and ethical guidelines that govern mental health counseling to ensure the highest standards of care.

Jobs for Mental Health Counselors with an MSW

By earning an MSW, you’ll be in the unique position where you can choose from roles in social work and in mental health counseling. Here are some examples of counseling positions that often require an MSW:  

Clinical directors for substance abuse and mental health manage and oversee mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. They work with patients and their families to develop individualized treatment plans and supervise other mental health professionals such as licensed social workers and counselors.

Mental health therapists are licensed professionals who provide counseling services to individuals struggling with mental health issues. They usually assess and diagnose clients, develop treatment plans, and provide psychotherapy to help clients manage their symptoms. Mental health therapists may specialize in areas such as trauma, depression, anxiety, or addiction. They work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, and private practices.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are professionals who diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. LCSWs provide therapy to individuals, groups, and families. They may specialize in various areas of mental health and work in settings such as mental health clinics, hospitals, or private practices.

Begin Your Journey: Earn Your Master of Social Work at Baylor

If you’re considering a path in counseling, set the stage for your success by earning a Master of Social Work from the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. 

At the Garland School, we believe social work — particularly social work education at Baylor — recognizes diverse expressions of faith and seeks to honor the role of spirituality as part of what holistically shapes a person, their family, and community. 

Perhaps you’re interested in social work because of the way your faith has motivated you or others? As part of our program, students learn about the influence of these beliefs and values in the profession. We call this our “10th competency.” 

While the Council on Social Work Education requires our school to be guided by nine competencies as part of its accreditation. We’ve developed this 10th competency based on the importance that faith plays in the profession of social work: 

Engage in ethical and anti-oppressive social work practice and research that considers the role and influence of religion, spirituality, and philosophical perspectives.  

Our MSW students are challenged by expert faculty members, rigorous curriculum, and outstanding peer cohorts in an environment that allows every student to select a community that will allow them to thrive as they complete their coursework. 

Ready to learn more? Request more information and learn how and MSW from Baylor can help you achieve your professional goals.  

And be sure to check out our resource What Do Social Workers Actually Do

Posted by Baylor School of Social Work Team

We are the admissions team at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, at Baylor University. We believe social work is about service and justice; it is about the dignity of individuals and the power of relationships; it is about integrity and competence, and our mission here is preparing social workers to do these things well. We hope you find our resources helpful and informative as you explore and pursue a degree in social work!




If you're interested in learning more about the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work and the programs we have to offer, we invite you to reach out to our team! 

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