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What Does a Social Worker Do?

What Does a Social Worker Do?

First and foremost, a social worker’s job is to help people who need assistance in some area of their day-to-day lives.  Social workers tend to have one of four specialties: child care and protection, school, healthcare, or mental health and substance abuse issues. 

In this article, we’ll be discussing what a social worker does, as well as addressing a few common misbeliefs about this important field of work.  Read on to learn more about this career and all the good it can do!

What is a Social Worker?

In many ways, social workers are like counselors.  They exist to help people solve problems and learn the coping mechanisms they need to make their lives easier. 

Licensed clinical social workers can diagnose mental, emotional, or psychological disorders.  They provide different levels of therapy– individual, group, family, or couples therapy– depending on the needs of who they’re assigned to help. If necessary, these specialists can refer clients to other doctors and personalized treatment plans tailored to their client’s specific needs.

Every social worker must obtain a bachelor’s degree, with a variety of classes in psychology, sociology, and economics.  They also must participate in an internship, where they can learn the ropes before being trusted with their own clients.

Though a bachelor’s degree is a minimum educational requirement, many social workers have master’s degrees or even doctorates in social work! 

A higher-level social worker can almost work as a psychologist, but there are plenty of social workers who assist less complicated cases regularly.  Whether you’re dealing with a licensed clinical social worker or a social worker with a bachelor’s degree, rest assured that both individuals are professionals with your best interest in mind. 

Areas of Social Work

Social workers can be found almost anywhere there are people in need, but most social workers tend to fall into one of four areas: child and family care, school, healthcare, or mental health and substance abuse. 

Child and Family

There’s no getting around it.  This particular branch of social work has gotten an especially bad reputation. 

When many people first hear the phrase “child and family social worker,” their minds travel to the worst places: children being torn from homes, innocent families being investigated, or parents having to deal with lifelong stigma. 

While in some cases, unfortunately, these social workers do have the responsibility of separating children from their family homes, this is only done when a thorough investigation has revealed an unsafe environment.  Most importantly, these social workers also have an additional responsibility: reuniting families whenever possible!

Child and Family Social Workers work to make sure that children are being raised in the best possible environment; this means mentally, physically, and academically.  This social worker travels from one spot to another, completing home visits to make sure that children are being provided a safe, healthy living environment.

In the end, “reunification”, or the reuniting of families with their children, is the ultimate goal.

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Good social workers understand that the happy ending every child deserves is to be reunited with a happy, healthy parent!

School Social

School social workers are incredibly important.  Just as a child and family social worker is there to ensure that children have healthy home environments, a school social worker is there to make sure kids have what they need to learn!

At younger levels, these workers help teachers resolve issues with early signs of aggressive or antisocial behavior.  In higher grade levels, they can help students struggling with issues of sexuality or addiction.

A school social worker might be called on if a teacher notices any particular student struggling with issues that are affecting their academic potential.  This could include hunger, homelessness, frequent skipping or refusal to participate in lessons, or signs of deeper, emotional issues.

Here are just a few things that a school social worker might do:

  • Study a student’s history for patterns of problems
  • Develop plans to help a student grow and succeed
  • Provide therapy
  • Check-in on a student’s safety
  • Train teacher and other school staff

Depending on the resources of a school or state, a school social worker may travel between different districts or counties to help students all over a given area. 


As the name might suggest, a healthcare social worker is responsible for helping people who might be struggling with a medical diagnosis, either financially or mentally.

Receiving bad medical news can be scary.  Once a person receives word that they have a chronic or life-threatening condition, they might feel their mood and mental health begin to spiral.  That’s where healthcare social workers step in.  These specialists can work as counselors to help a patient to accept their diagnosis, understand what it means for their life, and move forward with a healthy perspective on the situation.

It’s no secret that healthcare can be expensive.  For some, this expense is high enough that they may not feel as if their own physical health is worth the cost.  

Healthcare social workers assist people in finding ways to pay for their treatments and receive the financial assistance they need.  In many cases, these workers can serve as educators, helping people better understand their conditions and how to navigate the world of insurance. 

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Social workers can help out people dealing with issues like addiction, mental health, or even homelessness.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Did you know that addiction is technically a mental health disorder?  It’s true!  According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, addiction is classified as a disease.  This classification comes from the fact that addiction rewires the way the brain functions, changing the way their mind prioritizes “needs” to place drugs or alcohol ahead of all alternatives.

Even outside of addiction’s classification as its disorder, there’s evidence to show that people who already suffer from mental illnesses are more likely to develop addiction issues as a coping mechanism.  Mental health and substance abuse social workers understand this link and work with people who are struggling.

This branch of social work is dedicated to helping clients learn healthy coping mechanisms to escape unhealthy cycles.  This can include getting people involved in group therapy, linking them with programs, or providing information about rehab services.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers stand up for their client’s needs and help them face their demons head-on. They focus on educating the public about healthy ways of living in the hopes of sparing future generations from some of the heartache so often associated with substance abuse or mental health problems. 

Traits of a Good Social Worker

Social work is an important job, but it certainly isn’t an easy one.  Even outside of the heavy educational requirements, it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting.  After all, the entire career focuses on helping guide others into a healthier life.  If you’ve ever tried to offer any friend or family member some hard-to-swallow advice,  you can only imagine how difficult it can be to do this for a living!

It takes a special kind of person to be an effective social worker.  To succeed in this career field, a person must have:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • A passion for helping others
  • Strong empathy
  • Great organizational abilities
  • The ability to quickly problem solve
  • Patience and compassion for others
  • The bravery to handle tough news
  • An understanding of the effect of poverty

This isn’t a job for the timid.  It takes a great deal of heart and courage.  What’s more, this difficult field is far from being an extremely well-paying one.  You can rest assured that if you’re in a position where you are dealing with a social worker frequently, they aren’t in it for the pay; they’re in it for you!


Social workers exist to help others.  As such, they are likely to come into a person’s life when they are at their lowest, mentally, physically, or financially.  It’s no wonder that so many people associate social workers with hardship or misery!

In all truth, while there may be a few bad eggs, most social workers are in this field from a place of compassion.  For a society to function, people must be able to receive help when they are struggling.  Social workers are that help!

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Jessica Richburg is a freelance writer and educator. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, she's located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she passes the time reading, writing, and trying not to be eaten by her feral cat.