Answering “Should I See a Psychologist or Social Worker?”

By Jared Levenson - Reviewed on September 8, 2023
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When it comes to seeking mental health support, knowing where to turn can be a daunting task. You may ask, “Should I see a psychologist or a social worker?”

Both professionals play crucial roles in mental health care, but their specialties, training, and methods in mental health facilities vary significantly.

The quick answer: a psychologist is preferred when needing to diagnose. For example, suppose you’re dealing with a complex case with multiple mental health disorders, usually with lots of uncertainty about treatment options. In that case, a psychologist is better equipped to sort through the situation and bring clarity. However, a social worker is preferred if your situation is more defined and known.

The Online Mental Health Review Team is uniquely positioned to write about this topic, drawing from a rich expertise in the mental health field. Our team comprises experienced psychologists and social workers with firsthand knowledge of these professions and mental health treatments.

This post aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of these two professions and guide you in making an informed decision based on your needs.

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Understanding the Landscape: Psychologists and Social Workers

Psychiatrist, Therapist, Social Worker, LCSW, Psychologist... Who Should You See?


Psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D., PsyD, or EdD) and are trained in understanding the human mind—its processes, emotions, reactions, and behaviors of human behavior.

They specialize in diagnosing and treating various mental health issues and emotional disorders through psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other therapeutic techniques.

Psychologists delve into the deeper aspects of mental health, often focusing on the ‘why’ behind our feelings and actions.

Social Workers

On the other hand, social workers may hold a bachelor’s degree, master’s, or doctoral degree in social work (BSW, MSW, or DSW/Ph.D.).

They are trained to look at their clients’ needs holistically—not only addressing mental health but also considering factors like socio-economic status, family dynamics, and community resources.

Social workers often take a solution-focused approach, helping individuals navigate their current situations and improve their well-being.

Comparing Services: Where They Overlap and Differ


Both clinical psychologists and social workers can offer psychotherapy and counseling services. They can provide emotional support, help you understand and manage mental health conditions, and guide you through life’s challenges.

Both professions adhere to strict confidentiality rules and aim to create a safe, non-judgmental space for their clients.


The primary difference lies in their approach and focus areas. A psychologist might be more suitable if you’re seeking to understand the whole behavior and brain function as the root cause of your emotions and behaviors or

if you’re dealing with severe mental illness or health disorders. They are equipped to administer psychological tests and offer intensive therapy sessions.

A social worker, however, might be your go-to mental health professional if you’re facing life stressors like family issues, financial strain, or navigating community resources.

They can provide practical assistance, help you access local human services, and support you in creating a plan to improve your current situation.

Making the Choice: Which Professional is Right for You?

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The choice between a psychologist and a social worker largely depends on your needs and circumstances.

  1. A psychologist’s expertise might be beneficial when dealing with complex emotional issues or diagnosed mental health conditions.
  2. Conversely, a licensed clinical social worker could be the right choice if you’re grappling with situational stressors or need help accessing resources.

Remember, the best professional for you makes you feel understood, comfortable, and empowered.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions, share your concerns, and ensure their approach aligns with your needs.

What’s the difference between a social worker and a psychologist?

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Here, we delve into the core differences between social workers and psychologists.

  • Education and Training: Psychologists typically hold a Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology, focusing on research, testing, and observation during their training. In contrast, social workers usually have a Master’s degree in social work (MSW) and concentrate on practical strategies for dealing with cognitive, social, and emotional behaviors.
  • Approach to Care: Psychologists provide a more analytical form of support grounded in research and documentation. Social workers offer a more practical form of assistance, often addressing issues arising from the environment and outside circumstances.
  • Administration of Psychological Tests: One key distinction is that psychologists are trained to administer psychological tests, while social workers typically are not.
  • Interdisciplinary Techniques: Social workers often use techniques similar to those of psychologists and counselors, making social work a multidisciplinary field.
  • Holistic vs. Scientific Perspective: Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are known for their holistic approach to client well-being, while psychologists lean more towards a scientific approach.

Remember, both professions aim to improve individuals’ lives as human services professions but do so through different methodologies and perspectives.

Choosing between the two ultimately depends on your individual needs and circumstances.

Is a social worker good for therapy?

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When considering therapy, it’s essential to understand the unique benefits that a licensed social worker herself can offer in this role.

  • Holistic Perspective: Social workers approach therapy holistically, focusing on the individual in their environment.
  • Problem-solving Approach: They use problem-solving to help individuals cope with daily life and mental health challenges.
  • Support for Practical Issues: Social workers can support practical issues such as housing, employment, and social care, which can indirectly improve mental health.
  • Access to Resources: They often have extensive knowledge of community resources and can connect clients to additional support when needed.
  • Advocacy: Social workers are crucial in advocating for their client’s rights and needs.
  • Affordability: Therapy provided by social workers can often be more affordable than other types of therapy.

What is the difference between social work and psychiatry?

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Here’s a quick comparison to guide you:

  • Education and Training: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized in mental health, while social workers typically hold a Master’s degree in social work.
  • Medication Management: As medical doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, while social workers cannot.
  • Therapeutic Approach: Social workers focus on a person’s environment and how it impacts their mental health. On the other hand, psychiatrists often employ a more biomedical approach, focusing on diagnosis and treatment.
  • Duration of Sessions: Psychiatry appointments tend to be shorter and more focused on medication management, while social work sessions might be longer and more therapy-focused.
  • Holistic Care vs. Medical Treatment: Social workers provide holistic care, addressing both emotional and social factors. Psychiatrists, being medical doctors, concentrate more on the biological aspects of mental health.

Is social work or psychology better For a Career?

When deciding on a career path in mental health, it’s crucial to understand the differences between social work and psychology to determine which aligns best with your personal and professional goals.

  • Scope of Practice: Social work often involves a broader range of addressing individual and societal problems, while psychology focuses more on understanding and treating mental health disorders.
  • Approach to Treatment: Social workers often utilize a person-in-environment system, focusing on how an individual’s environment affects their mental health. Psychologists, on the other hand, often use research-based psychological theories to guide treatment.
  • Educational Path: A career in psychology typically requires a doctoral degree for independent practice, whereas social work can be practiced independently with a Master’s degree.
  • Career Opportunities: Both fields offer diverse career opportunities, but social workers often work in community organizations, schools, or government agencies, while psychologists often work in private practice, hospitals, or academic settings.
  • Salary Potential: Psychologists generally earn higher salaries than social workers, reflecting their longer educational path and specialized training.

What are the different types of social work?

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  • Clinical Social Work: This involves helping individuals, families, and groups address mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
  • Child, Family, and School Social Work: These social workers focus on improving children’s, teens, and families’ social and psychological well-being.
  • Medical and Public Health Social Work: Social workers support patients navigating health-related issues, including chronic or terminal illnesses.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work: This type of social work focuses on helping individuals struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse.
  • Military and Veterans Social Work: These social workers support military personnel, veterans, and their families.
  • Community Social Work: This involves working at a macro level to improve community-wide issues, such as poverty or lack of access to healthcare.

Do social workers use psychology?


The intersections of a social worker vs. psychology can be complex. National Association of Social Workers highlights how social workers use psychology and can provide clarity and enhance your mental health journey.

  • Understanding Behavior: Social workers use psychological theories to understand the behavior of individuals, families, and groups.
  • Assessment and Diagnosis: Psychological concepts assist social workers in evaluating and diagnosing mental health conditions.
  • Therapeutic Techniques: In their practice, many social workers employ psychological therapeutic techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral or psychodynamic therapy.
  • Crisis Intervention: Knowledge of psychology aids social workers in crisis intervention, helping individuals cope with immediate stressors.
  • Case Management: Psychology informs case management strategies, including coordinating services, advocating for clients, and monitoring progress.

Should I See A Psychologist or Social Worker? Conclusion

Deciding between a psychologist and a social worker for your mental health needs is a deeply personal decision that hinges on your unique circumstances, experiences, and objectives.

Both professionals bring valuable skills and perspectives, each offering different yet complementary pathways to mental health wellness.

Finally, we’d appreciate your thoughts! Suggest a mental health software you think the Online Mental Health Reviews platform should review next. Our team would love to hear about your experience!

If your organization is considering a mental health tool, please email us to request a review. If appropriate, we will secret shop the service your organization wants to learn more about and leave a comprehensive review.

Additional Reading

For more distinctions between various mental health jobs/terms, please see our articles covering: counselor vs therapist and salary comparison, psychiatrist vs psychologist (depression), therapist vs psychologist, depression, LPC vs PsyD, clinical psychologist, counseling versus coaching, mentors vs sponsors, psychotherapy vs CBT, therapy quiz, trauma coach vs therapist, therapist vs life coaches, shrink versus therapist, and hospital vs psych ward.

If You Are In Crisis

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, seeking immediate help is crucial, as waiting for an online therapy session might not be the safest option. If your or someone else’s life is in danger, please dial 911 immediately. This includes any plans of self-harm or harm to others. If you’re contemplating self-harm, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

You may want to try virtual urgent care via Sesame Care or DrHouse for non-emergency but still urgent situations.

This helpline is open 24/7 to assist. Alternatively, contact the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 800-662-HELP (4357).

SAMHSA offers a free, confidential service that provides round-the-clock assistance every day of the year, helping individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues find the treatment they need and providing valuable information about such therapies to other medical professionals.

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