Social Worker

Social workers help people with challenging situations. There are many types of social workers, ranging from child and family social workers to advocacy and community organizing social workers. Their roles vary, but the main foundation of social work is to help people who aren’t able — or don’t know how — to help themselves.


What is a social worker?

A social worker has special training to help people with challenging situations in their everyday lives. They can help individuals (like a child or adult) or groups of people (like families or communities). Clinical social workers can diagnose and treat mental health and behavioral conditions. They’re also called licensed clinical social workers.

You can think of a social worker as an advocate — someone who supports you and works to find the best resources for you. They represent people who can’t effectively represent themselves.

Many social workers specialize in helping a certain population of people or working in a specific setting.

Social workers have roles in nearly every aspect of community life, including:

  • Schools.
  • Hospitals.
  • Mental health and substance use clinics.
  • Senior centers.
  • Prisons.
  • Military settings.
  • Government.
  • Corporations and public and private agencies.

They help with a wide range of situations and populations of people. Just a few examples include helping:

  • A couple adopt a child.
  • A family cope with and prepare for a loved one’s terminal illness.
  • Individuals, families and communities find ways to recover from substance use.
  • Community organizations and policymakers develop social programs. Examples include child fostering programs or housing programs.

Types of social workers

Social workers can specialize in many different areas. Some types of social workers include:

  • Clinical social workers: These providers have special training to diagnose and treat mental health and behavioral conditions. They provide individual, group, family and couples therapy (psychotherapy). Clinical social workers are like therapists or psychologists. Many of these providers work in private practices to help people with things like relationship issues, anxiety and depression. They may work in a variety of specialties. For example, a clinical social worker could also be a healthcare social worker.
  • Healthcare social workers: These providers help you understand your diagnosis and what it means for your future. They may help you adjust your lifestyle, housing or medical needs to live more comfortably and independently. For example, they may help you find home healthcare aids or support groups. Some further specialize in certain areas, like cancer care or hospice and palliative care.
  • Child and family social workers: These providers help vulnerable children and families in need of aid. For example, they may help families find housing or apply for benefits like food stamps. They can help parents of children with developmental disabilities understand their legal rights. They intervene in cases of child abuse or neglect. They can also help with child adoption and fostering.
  • School social workers: These providers work with parents and teachers. Together, they develop plans to improve students’ academic performance and social development. They help students with issues like bullying or frequent absences. They also provide information on special education resources.
  • Mental health and substance use social workers: These providers help people with mental health conditions or substance use disorders. They refer you to services (like support groups and rehabilitation centers) to help with your condition. They’re often licensed clinical social workers.
  • Justice and corrections social workers: These providers work in legal courts, rape crisis centers, police departments and correctional facilities. For example, they may help inmates focus on rehabilitation by providing therapy and other services. They can also be probation or parole officers, as well as victim advocates. Social workers in police departments can help with domestic dispute cases.
  • Advocacy and community organizing social workers: These providers work to support the legal rights of people and communities to achieve social justice. They may work for government agencies or nonprofit organizations.


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What does a social worker do?

The roles of a social worker can vary based on which communities and fields of work they specialize in. But the general roles of social workers include:

  • Identifying people and communities in need of help.
  • Assessing your needs, situations, strengths and weaknesses to determine your goals and how best to achieve them.
  • Creating a treatment plan or “plan of action” that’ll empower you to overcome, recover from or adjust to your situation.
  • Helping you adjust to changes and challenges in your life. This can range from a sudden or chronic illness to divorce or unemployment.
  • Researching, providing information on and referring you to community resources. Examples include food stamps, childcare, healthcare access, housing and legal aid.
  • Responding to crises, like child abuse cases, spousal abuse cases and mental health emergencies.
  • Monitoring your situation and following up to make sure it’s improved.
  • Maintaining case files and records.
  • Providing psychotherapy (talk therapy) services.

Additional Common Questions

How do you become a social worker?

Social workers usually need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. You may also need a special license — the requirements vary by state in the U.S.

A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for nonclinical social worker positions. All BSW programs involve supervised fieldwork or an internship.

Clinical social workers typically need a master’s degree in social work (MSW). After graduating with an MSW degree, you must complete supervised training and experience. The length of this training varies by state in the U.S., but it may take several years.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Social workers are very important to our society. They help people who have difficulty helping themselves in thousands of different situations. If you’re experiencing challenges related to your physical health, mental health or family or home life, a social worker may be able to help you. While it can be overwhelming to acknowledge and seek help, it’s important that you do.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/13/2023.

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