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 200,000 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.”


MSW Advanced Curriculum for Clinical Social Work Practice

In the summer of 2009, the Dean and selected faculty from the St. Kate’s - St. Thomas MSW program participated in a work group sponsored by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to establish knowledge and practice behavior standards for graduate programs with a focus on clinical social work practice as a guide to the implementation of the epas 2008. The MSW faculty has adopted the definition of Clinical Social Work Practice in this guideline as the framework for our advanced curriculum:

As a specialty within the practice of social work, clinical social work builds on the professional values, ethics, principles, practice methods, and the person-in-environment perspective of the profession. It reflects the profession’s mission to promote social and economic justice by empowering clients who experience oppression or vulnerability. Clinical social work requires the professional use of self to restore, maintain, and enhance the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual functioning of individuals, families, and groups. The practice of clinical social work requires the application of advanced clinical knowledge and clinical skills in multidimensional assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychosocial dysfunction, disability, or impairment including emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders, conditions, and addictions. Clinical practice interventions include case formulation based on differential diagnosis and assessment of risks and vulnerabilities and those factors that produce and constrain the strengths and resilience found in the transactions among people, their communities, and the larger social environment. Treatment methods include the provision of individual, family, and group work. Clinical social workers are engaged in crisis intervention, brief and long-term psychotherapy and counseling, client-centered advocacy, consultation, and evaluation. Interventions responsive to all dimensions of diversity are applied within the context of the therapeutic relationship guided by best practices and evidence-based guidelines. Clinical supervision is an important component of clinical social work in agencies, organizations, and private practice settings.

Clinical social work practice augments the 10 core competencies and is grounded in the values of the profession. Service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, competence, human rights, and scientific inquiry are among the core values of social work. These values underpin the explicit and implicit curriculum and frame the profession’s commitment to respect for all people and the quest for social and economic justice. (EP 1.1; CSWE, 2008a)

(CSWE, 2009, Advanced Social Work Practice in Clinical Social Work, pp. 2-3)

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."