Differences Between Counseling and Social Work

For those of us who want to help other people overcome problems and difficulties, both counseling and social work seem like a logical choice for careers. After all, both social workers and counselors are fully trained to perform therapy one-on-one and helping patients with issues such as mental illness and substance abuse. In fact, the job functions for these two professions often overlap to the point where most people cannot tell them apart. There are, however, a couple of important differences between the two that students should understand in order to make a better informed decision as to which path of study is right for them.

Social Work versus Counseling

The key difference between social work and counseling is this: social workers can act as counselors but counselors cannot act as social workers. The reason is that counseling is a much more narrowly defined field and such professionals are licensed to provide everything from marriage counseling to school counseling, but they cannot perform what is considered to be social work. 

Social workers can perform advocacy work for families and children, including being employed by state and local governments in order to investigate claims of child abuse and neglect. Counselors, on the other hand, work primarily in a clinical setting, providing therapy to patients. While social workers can work in a number of different settings from community organizations to nonprofit advocacy groups, helping people to not only get clinical treatment for their problems but to also gain access to entitlements and other services which they need to improve their lives, counselors instead focus on treating emotional and mental problems and how best to alleviate the symptoms associated with these problems.

As an example, let's take the case of a middle-aged man who has been addicted to drugs for several decades but is finally seeking out treatment. In this situation, a counselor would provide psychotherapy, helping the patient to understand where his problem of addiction originated and how to cope with feelings that often drive him to want to use drugs. The social worker would provide similar therapy, but may also help the man to find subsidized housing while he looks for work as well as qualify for other services which will help him to focus on his recovery instead of worrying so much about finances or other resources. 

The good news is that regardless of which profession one chooses to pursue, the job outlook for both are fairly positive going forward, as the handling of substance abuse shifts more from imprisoning offenders to treating them in clinical settings. For those who have the experience and education necessary, ample opportunities could be available in the future. 


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