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Psychology vs psychiatry vs social work

The difference between psychiatry and social work is important to understand. The work that psychiatrists and social workers do is very laudable. They give of themselves and help people who are in their worst circumstance to have the best outcome in life. At times, it may seem like the work that psychiatrists do and the work that social workers do is one in the same. And while there are times where both fields cross paths, there is a difference between social work and psychiatry.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor. They have received extensive training on addressing mental health issues using medication. It’s easy to confuse the work that a psychiatrist does with a therapist. Therapists listen to people’s problems and talk them through the issues they are dealing with. Just about anyone can claim that they are a therapist. However, a psychiatrist has the medical degree to support their work.

What Is a Social Worker?

psych vs swA social worker is also a licensed professional. Unlike a psychiatrist, a social worker has not received a doctorate, but, instead, they have received a master’s degree in social work. A psychologist or psychiatrist is going to receive training involving the structure of the human personality. A social worker will get a master’s degree in social work, and their training revolves around how societal factors will affect a person’s behavior. They also learn about the different social services and social resources that are available in the community. Many professionals get their master’s degree in social work while they are working in a different field.

The Benefits of Psychiatry and Social Work

Both psychiatrists and social workers are licensed professionals. This means that they have received standardized training. Through fieldwork and testing, they have proven that they have the skill set necessary to accomplish their job. This also means that they are confined by an ethics code. Both psychiatrists and social workers are required to receive additional training to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and services that are available.

Both psychiatrists and social workers are given the public’s trust. The work they do has an impact on the community’s mental and emotional health. Being a social worker or psychiatrist can be mentally and emotionally taxing, but the rewards that come from doing this type of work are innumerable.

This article was written by:

rashelle wilberRachelle Wilber is a freelance writer living in the San Diego, California area. She graduated from San Diego State University with her Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Media Studies. She tries to find an interest in all topics and themes, which prompts her writing. When she isn’t on her porch writing in the sun, you can find her shopping, at the beach, or at the gym. Rachelle knows that social workers receive masters degrees in social work. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

To be a guest author on the Your Mental Health Blog, go here.

Mental health services are provided by several different professions, each of which has its own training and areas of expertise. When faced with serious mental illness, finding the right professional for yourself or a loved one is a critical ingredient in the process of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

Mental Health Professionals: Who They Are

Mental health services are provided by several different professions, each of which has its own training and areas of expertise. Finding the right professional(s) for you or a loved one can be a critical ingredient in the process of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery when faced with serious mental illness.

Types of Mental Health Professionals:

  • Psychiatrist – a psychiatrist is a physician with a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree or osteopathic (D.O.) degree, with at least four more years of specialized study and training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed as physicians to practice medicine by individual states. “Board certified” psychiatrists have passed the national examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Psychiatrists provide medical and psychiatric evaluations, treat psychiatric disorders, provide psychotherapy, and prescribe and monitor medications.
  • Psychologist – some psychologists have a master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) in psychology while others have a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.) in clinical, educational, counseling, or research psychology. Most states license psychologists to practice psychology. They can provide psychological testing, evaluations, treat emotional and behavioral problems and mental disorders, and provide psychotherapy.
  • Social Worker- Social workers have either a bachelor’s degree (B.A., B.S., or B.S.W.), a master’s degree (M.A., M.S., M.S.W., or M.S.S.W), or doctoral degree (D.S.W. or Ph.D.). In most states, social workers take an examination to be licensed to practice social work (L.C.S.W. or L.I.C.S.W.), and the type of license depends on their level of education and practice experience. Social workers provide various services including assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, hospital discharge planning, and psychotherapy.
  • Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse – Psychiatric/mental health nurses may have various degrees ranging from associate’s to bachelor’s (B.S.N.) to master’s (M.S.N. or A.P.R.N) to doctoral (D.N.Sc., Ph.D.). Depending on their level of education and licensing, they provide a broad range of psychiatric and medical services, including the assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, and psychotherapy. In some states, some psychiatric nurses may prescribe and monitor medication.
  • Licensed Professional Counselors – Licensed Professional Counselors have a master’s degree (M.A.) in psychology, counseling or a similar discipline and typically have two years of post-graduate experience. They may provide services that include diagnosis and counseling (individual, family/group or both). They have a license issued in their state and may be certified by the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors.

Psychiatry and psychology are overlapping professions. Practitioners in both — psychiatrists and psychologists — are mental health professionals. Their area of expertise is the mind — and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental illness. And both are committed to helping people stay mentally well.

But there are differences between psychiatry and psychology. And people sometimes find those differences confusing, especially when they are looking for help. To make matters even more confusing, psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t the only mental health professionals you can choose from. There are mental health counselors, social workers, nurses and nurse practitioners, and others who deal with issues of mental health. And if you consider the multiple approaches to treatment, ranging from counseling to various forms of psychotherapy, the whole mental health system begins to look like a maze that’s nearly impossible to navigate.

But here’s a guide you can use to help you make your way through that maze.


Social worker vs. psychologist: Which human services path is right for you?

Social work vs Psychology

As you search for a rewarding and people-centric career, rest easy knowing there are many humanistic professions you could pursue. If your career goals involve helping others overcome their challenges, it’s natural to be curious about social worker versus psychologist roles.

Both social workers and psychologists are trained to tune in to a person’s cognitive, social and emotional behaviors. They aim to provide guidance, strategies and resources to help individuals cope with the difficulties they face.

Although these professions do overlap, there are also some notable differences between social work and psychology. Understanding these distinctions can help you decide which of is right for you. We dug into the data to outline these two impactful career paths below. You just might find you’re a natural fit for one over the other.

What is the difference between social worker and psychologist duties?

There are numerous subfields within social work and psychology. Practitioners can specialize in working with school children, marriage and families, mental health, or substance abuse, to name a few. With this wide range of services, each professional’s job description may vary, though there are core elements specific to both of these roles.

Social workers not only help people cope with challenges, but they also dedicate ample time and energy to advocacy. They help raise awareness and advance causes both with and on behalf of their clients at the local, state and even national levels. Social workers typically work with families and individuals to help improve their quality of life.

Some of the typical social worker duties include the following:

  • Assessing a client’s needs, situations and strengths to determine their goals

  • Helping clients adjust to major life changes, such as illness, divorce or the death of a loved one

  • Researching, referring and advocating for community resources on a client-by-client basis

  • Responding to crisis situations, such as mental health emergencies or child abuse

  • Identifying people or communities in need of help

  • Following up with clients to ensure improvements are made

Psychologists, on the other hand, observe, interpret and record how people relate to one another and their environments by studying cognitive, emotional and social behaviors. Their goal is to understand and explain complicated thoughts, feelings and actions. A psychologist’s process for doing so can include controlled laboratory experiments, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Rather than working with families or community groups, psychologists typically work with clients in a one-on-one capacity.

Psychologists are generally responsible for the following job duties:

  • Conducting scientific studies of behavior and brain function

  • Identifying psychological, emotional, or behavioral issues and diagnosing disorders

  • Identifying and testing for patterns that can help them better understand and predict behavior

  • Discussing treatment plans with clients and other medical professionals

  • Writing articles, research papers and reports to share findings with others

What is the career outlook for a licensed social worker vs. psychologist?

You may plan to pursue a particular career based solely on your passion for the topic, but you still want some assurance that there will be jobs available once you finish school. In the case of social work and psychology, both are steady careers with ample job opportunities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment of social workers is expected to increase 13 percent through 2029—that’s more than triple the rate of all occupations nationwide. Mental health and substance abuse roles are also projected to rise substantially in that time frame, with a growth rate of 17 percent, closely followed by a 13 percent spike in health care positions.

The BLS forecasts a stable job market for psychologists. Overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow three percent through 2029, with similar rates for clinical, counseling and school psychologist specialties.

Some experts hypothesize demand for psychology services will increase particularly for two groups: aging populations and those within schools. As the population ages, additional services can help people deal with the mental and physical changes that occur as they grow older. And as more people become aware of the connection between mental health and learning, school psychologists’ expertise will be in high demand.

Social worker vs. psychologist: How do you become one?

There are multiple education tracks that could lead you to careers in psychology and social work. The most common requirement for entry-level social work positions is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). According to the BLS, a BSW prepares students for direct-service positions, such as a case worker or a mental health assistant.

Clinical social work positions require a Master of Social Work (MSW). This program typically prepares students to work in their chosen specialty and requires students to complete a supervised practicum or internship. You’ll also need two years of supervised training and experience. You can then take a clinical exam to become licensed. Licensure requirements vary by state, so be sure to look into the specifics in your area.

Most psychologist positions require a doctoral degree in psychology, but the BLS reports a master’s degree in the field can be sufficient for some roles. A Master of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy, like the one at University of Massachusetts Global, for example, can qualify graduates who obtain proper licensure to work in marriage and family counselor positions.

For the clinical, counseling and research psychologist positions that require further education, you have the option of pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Ph.D. psychology programs are research intensive and culminate in taking a comprehensive exam and writing a detailed dissertation. The Psy.D. is a clinical degree often based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation. Many psychology doctoral programs will include a one-year internship.

In most states, you must be licensed to practice as a psychologist. State-specific licensure requirements can be found at the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards site. Practicing psychologists must complete continuing education courses to maintain licensure in many states, as well.

Is your future in social work or psychology?

This social worker versus psychologist comparison should have you one step closer to determining where you can make your impact. Whichever of these rewarding professions you choose, you’ll need to further your education to make the career your own.

If you find yourself drawn toward social work or psychology, check out the undergraduate and graduate degrees at University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Arts & Sciences for online programs that fit your schedule, budget and career ambitions.