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Can a Licensed Social Worker Diagnose a Mental Illness?

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Not all licensed social workers are qualified to diagnose a mental illness. Even if your training has equipped you to identify mental, behavioral or emotional disorders, you must be a licensed clinical social worker – “clinical” being the operative word – to provide this type of service. Direct-service social workers, the other main type of social worker in health services, often need a license to practice but don’t hold the credentials necessary to do diagnoses.

Direct-Service Social Workers

For most people, becoming a direct-service social worker takes about four years – the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work, or BSW. Upon graduation, you’re qualified to work as a caseworker, where you work with clients to resolve a number of different issues, such as finding appropriate childcare, adjusting to divorce, resolving unemployment and dealing with illnesses.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers, on the other hand, must earn a master’s degree in social work. In addition to the four or more years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree, a master’s in social work takes another two years. However, some programs allow students holding a BSW to complete their graduate degree in just one year. Upon graduation, you’re now qualified to both diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. You’ll often find yourself working with doctors and other health-care professionals to develop treatment plans for clients.


As with many jobs, licensing and certification vary by state. Some states may require a direct-service social worker to earn a license, while others may consider this designation optional. But clinical social workers typically need to complete two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience to qualify for the licensing exam. Once you pass the exam, you become a licensed clinical social worker.

Earning Potential

The extra work doesn’t go unnoticed – at least as far as earnings go. Clinical social workers tend to earn more than other social workers. As of 2015, clinical social workers averaged $54,020 a year, according to a report from U.S. News & World Report. Child and family social workers, on the other hand, earned an average of $46,610, while a mental health counselor earned $45,080 a year.


Based in Minneapolis, Minn., Dana Severson has been writing marketing materials for small-to-mid-sized businesses since 2005. Prior to this, Severson worked as a manager of business development for a marketing company, developing targeted marketing campaigns for Big G, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, among others.

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