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What’s the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Psychotherapist?

Psychologist listening to her patient and writing down notes

For anyone experiencing mental health challenges, finding the right professional to trust is often easier said than done. In the modern digital world, there are many options to consider, including the designation of the provider. You may already know that a psychotherapist is a viable option when it comes to providing mental health support, but did you know that in many cases, a social worker can also provide you with the support you need?

Keep reading to learn the main differences between a social worker and a psychotherapist, so you can make an informed decision and get the best support possible.


What is a Psychotherapist?

A registered psychotherapist (RP) is a practitioner that specializes in providing counselling to people who are having mental health challenges. Psychotherapy is mainly talk-based therapy, and the goal is to improve or maintain mental health and well-being.


Types of Therapy a Psychotherapist Provides

A psychotherapist works with individuals, couples, and families in both individual and group settings and will use a variety of different evidence-based treatments. These include:


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – This is a talk-based therapy that helps people change the way they think and behave. It’s usually used to treat anxiety and depression but can also be helpful for other issues.


Dialectical Behavioural Therapy – This is another type of talk-based therapy that’s based on cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s been adapted for people who feel very intense emotions or have severe depression.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – This treatment helps your brain reprocess negative memories so they no longer cause the same amount of pain. It consists of a therapist guiding you to think about trauma while moving your eyes from side to side or up and down.


Mindfulness – This treatment consists of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, body sensations, feelings, and the surrounding environment. The key is to be a non-judgmental, impartial witness to your own experience.


Many people are unsure of the differences between a psychotherapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist, so here is a quick breakdown:

A registered psychotherapist is able to conduct assessments and provide treatment, as mentioned above, but they are not able to diagnose specific conditions or prescribe medication. A psychologist is able to conduct psychological testing and make a diagnosis, but they cannot prescribe medication. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can help people with more acute, sudden issues, and long-term psychological issues. Psychiatrists can both diagnose and prescribe medication.


What is a social worker?

There are many different areas of social work. With certain types of social workers, you’ll notice many similarities when compared to the role of a psychotherapist, while others focus on completely different areas. Social workers provide counselling, therapy, and other social services to help support individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities. Unlike social service workers who typically don’t work in private practice and may focus more on child services and similar services, a registered social worker may focus on more clinical services and treatments.


Types of Services a social worker Provides

The scope of social work of a social worker can cover a wide range of different subtopics, including:


Mental Health and Social Work in Clinics – social workers (like the ones offering therapy at Focus) provide mental health services in both rural and urban areas. In some areas, a social worker may be the only licensed provider of mental health services available to people. 

If you see a registered social worker on an online therapy platform like Focus, it’s important to note that this provider is qualified and capable of providing you with the same kind of therapy services as a psychotherapist. A registered social worker can work in private practice, in hospitals, in community mental health clinics, or in outreach programs. It’s common for a social worker to treat a wide range of different issues that include anxiety, relationship issues, depression, addictions, trauma, self-esteem problems, parenting issues, and other mental health challenges.


Substance Abuse – Social workers who are trained in treating substance abuse may do group or individual therapy, family counselling, advocacy for employment or housing, case management, education, policy-making, or community resource development.


Administration and Management – Social work administrators act as proactive leaders in public and private agencies that are tasked with providing services to clients. This may also require knowledge about specific social policies and the delivery of social services.


Child Welfare – Social workers focused on child welfare work with many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and families, specializing in creating safe anti-nurturing environments for kids. Social workers also will intervene to help protect children from harm if they’ve experienced abuse or neglect.


Developmental Disabilities – Some social workers help parents of children that have developmental disabilities by advocating for their legal rights and finding special services to help the kids be as independent as possible.


Which One Should I Choose?

When trying to decide between a social worker or a psychotherapist to help in your particular situation, there are a few different factors to consider. An important factor could be your insurance and which practitioner you are covered for. Different insurance policies will specify which types of health practitioners you have coverage for and, since social workers and psychotherapists have so many similarities, following the guidelines of your insurance could be a good way to make a decision between the two.

If insurance is not a factor, you may want to look into each specific therapist’s specialties and experience to find the one that will deliver the best results. You may want to look through their individual biographies or book a phone consultation to find out which one is more in alignment with your needs and which style you think will work best with your personality.

If you’d like to learn more about what we have to offer at Focus Mental Wellness, take a few moments to get a custom match with one of our licensed therapists today.

Get custom matched to a licensed therapist and start feeling better today.