What is Clinical Social Work Practice?

According to the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work:

“Clinical social work is a mental-health profession whose practitioners, educated in social-work graduate schools and trained under supervision, master a distinctive body of knowledge and skill in order to assess, diagnose, and ameliorate problems, disorders, and conditions that interfere with healthy bio-psychosocial functioning of people—individuals, couples, families, groups—of all ages and backgrounds.”

"The nation’s 250,000 Clinical Social Workers provide more mental healthcare, of more types and in more settings, than any other profession. Working in both the public and private sectors, including many non-profit programs, Clinical Social Workers are the mainstay of the American mental healthcare system."

“Clinical Social Workers typically provide bio-psychosocial services, including diagnosis and clinical treatment (e.g. psychotherapy), that are reimbursable under health insurance programs and by every major self-insured company in America.”

Drawing upon the definitions of clinical social work adopted by the National Association of Social Workers and the Council on Social Work Education, we define the practice of clinical social work in the following manner:

Clinical social work is the professional application of advanced social work theory and methods to help restore, maintain, and enhance bio-psycho-social-spiritual functioning in individuals, groups, families, and communities. It is built upon the foundation of generalist social work including respect for diversity, empowerment of client systems, and advocacy of social and economic justice for vulnerable populations. It utilizes the application of clinical knowledge and skills in multidimensional assessment, diagnosis and treatment of emotional, mental and behavioral disorders, conditions, and addictions with special attention devoted to a strengths and person-in-environment perspective.


Interview: What is Clinical Social Work?

Jane Hurley-JohncoxA conversation with clinical faculty member Jane Hurley Johncox, MSW, LICSW

‌"Sometimes there’s a tendency to want to narrowly define clinical social work practice to be outpatient mental health services.  I think that’s an important part of the work, but only one of many possibilities. The way I define clinical social work practice is, it’s not the setting that you’re in, it’s the lens that you’re bringing to your setting" 

View more of the conversation:

  1. YouTube» How do you define clinical social work?
  2. YouTube» Settings in which clinical social work is practiced
  3. YouTube» Knowledge, values & skills needed by a clinical social worker 

Additional excerpts:

"Clinical social work is grounded in the foundation of generalist social work practice. We’re always thinking about and considering social context and practicing from a strengths-based perspective. [Social workers have] a strong belief that people benefit from having their strengths and resiliency identified versus looking only at deficits or pathologies. This is one way in which clinical social work is a little bit different [from other mental health professions]. Even though we have to be well-aware of diagnostics, be able to do assessments, and understand the bio-psycho-social-spiritual dimensions of the individuals we’re working with, that’s just one component. We don’t see the diagnosis or their pathology as the totality of their being; rather, it just gives us information about their level of functioning and the types of support they need. Clinical social work tries to differentiate between social problems and individual pathologies."

"I’ve done clinical social work in prisons, in day treatment programs, in community-based groups...all kinds of non-traditional settings when it comes to clinical social work. It occurs all the time in hospitals. I can’t think of a time when people need a clinical social worker more than when they’re experiencing the trauma of learning of a new diagnosis, after having a major accident occur, or knowing that a loved one may be passing. In schools, clinical social work is a key piece, in particular, helping the school understand behaviors through a mental health lens, not just responding to them as though you have an acting-out child who needs to be expelled. It certainly happens on the streets, working with the homeless population, [of which] a large number have significant mental health issues. Working in day treatment with young kids - 3 to 5 years old- trying to make changes in their lives. There’s hardly a place you CAN’T do clinical social work. It’s about a perspective and a lens, weaving in social work values and ethics, but also the clinical competencies."