Therapist vs. Social Worker: What’s the Difference?

Alexander BuCher

Written by Alexander BuCher

Licensed Professional Counselor | Youngstown State University

Updated & Fact Checked: 06.17.2024

With recent interest and investments in mental health care and social services, many individuals are looking to enter the field. Positions that people often seek out when choosing to work in the helping professions are therapist and social worker. While the occupations can be very similar in their duties and responsibilities, there are many differences. Not only are there differences in job duties, but there are also differences in how to enter each profession, including the specific requirements for each from an educational and licensing perspective.

What is a Therapist? 

According to Verywell Mind the term therapist “is often applied to psychologists, but it can also include others who provide a variety of services, including, social workers, counselors, life coaches, and many others.” In a mental health setting, therapists can provide individual, group, and family therapy sessions. They can also diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Therapists can work in schools, private practices, community agencies, and hospitals. From a licensing perspective, therapists can hold any of the following licenses:

  1. LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist)
  2. LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)
  3. LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  4. LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)

What is a Social Worker? 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), states that a social worker helps individuals, families, and groups prevent and cope with problems. They diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Social workers may also work to provide social services to communities such as food security and housing. Social workers practice in schools, hospitals, governmental agencies, and community/private practices. Generally, practicing social workers are licensed clinical social workers (LCSW’s).

Differences and Similarities Between Therapists and Social Workers

While there are many similarities between therapists and social workers, there are also many differences. A way to think about the differences is that social workers can be therapists but not all therapists can be social workers. Some similarities include providing individual, group, or family counseling sessions as well as diagnosing and treating mental health disorders and creating treatment plans. 

What does a therapist do? 

According to the definition of therapist by Verywell Mind, therapists can provide counseling services just like counselors but can also be social workers, psychologists, and life coaches. For the sake of this article, we will focus on therapists who provide counseling services. Just like counselors, therapists can provide mental health and substance abuse services, create treatment plans, and refer patients to other local resources. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), therapists who work in mental health are employed in the following settings: 

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers (18%)
  • Individual and family services (15%)
  • Offices of other health practitioners (12%)
  • State, local, and private hospitals (9%)
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse centers (9%)

What does a social worker do? 

Social workers can work in either clinical or community settings. Their responsibilities in each setting differ. Some of the duties of a social worker, states the BLS, include identifying people and communities in need, helping clients adjust to life changes, responding to crises, and providing individual therapy sessions. As previously mentioned, social workers can deliver therapy services but not all therapists can provide social work services. The most common work environments for social workers include: 

  • Individual and family services (17%)
  • Ambulatory healthcare services (14%)
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals (14%)
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals (13%)
  • State, local, and private hospitals (10%)


Job Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary of therapists providing individual, group, family, or substance abuse services is $53,710. The salary can vary based on setting, level of licensure, and experience. 

Social workers can expect to make slightly more than therapists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that social workers make an average of $58,380. As mentioned above, this salary can vary based on work setting, job location, and licensure. 

The outlook for becoming a therapist is good with the BLS estimating that the need for therapists will increase by about 18% by 2032. Growth of the social worker profession is expected to grow but slower than the growth of therapists. The need for social workers is expected to increase by 7% by 2032. 

How to become a therapist

To become a therapist, one must graduate with a master’s or doctoral degree in either clinical mental health counseling or social work. In some states, psychologists can provide therapy services but often have a doctoral degree. States may require that graduate programs in clinical mental health counseling be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). They may also require that graduate social work programs be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

In most states, therapists must pass a licensure exam. That examination may either be the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) for those with a degree in clinical mental health counseling. Those with a degree in social work would take the Association of Social Worker Boards (ASWB) examination. 

How to become a social worker

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the governing body for social workers in the United States. To become a social worker in most states, one must have a master’s degree in social work or a closely related field. 

The first step to becoming a social worker is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. This degree could be in any field, however, most people decide to major in social work for their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Depending on the state, it is possible to practice as a social worker with a bachelor’s degree only, but most of the time those jobs are not clinical. 

The master’s degree in social work may be required to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) depending on the state. In addition to having an advanced degree, applicants must pass state licensure exams and supervised clinical experience before obtaining licensure. It is also required to complete continuing education during each license renewal period. 

Which Suits Me Better? 

If you are looking for a career where you are providing counseling services to individuals, groups, and families becoming a therapist may be the right decision. Therapists work mostly in professional settings and may also create treatment plans and work with other community services to best serve their clients. This career path is ideal for those who enjoy sedentary work and have no problem with staying at their desk. 

Those who are looking for a job where they spend more time in the community and not at a desk would do best as a social worker. While social workers can provide counseling services like therapists, they can also go into the community and provider crisis services. Social workers may also work in a variety of settings to provide services to those in the community that expand beyond counseling services such as food security and housing. 


Verywell Mind

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC)

Association of Social Worker Boards (ASWB)