What is the difference between a psychologist and a social worker?

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Female thinkingIf you are considering accessing counselling or psychological services, you may be wondering, “What the difference is between a psychologist and a social worker? Does it matter who I work with?” Although there is a great deal of overlap, there are important differences between these two groups of professionals, each with their own areas of specialization and focus.

Both psychologists and social workers are licensed professionals. This means that they have a certain degree of training, they have demonstrated their proficiency in applying the techniques learned in their academic curriculums, they adhere to a professional code of ethics, and they are required to participate in significant continuing education.

Social Work is a profession that focuses on improving the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and society as a whole. Social workers perform a wide range of duties to accomplish this goal: A social worker can work in direct services, helping people cope with problems related to poverty, legal issues, or human rights; or, they can work in the clinical field, where they assess and treat mental, behavioral, or emotional health issues. Social workers can also develop a care plan, usually in collaboration with other health-care professionals such as physicians or nurses, to promote a client’s mental and emotional well-being.

Social workers serve in a variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, schools, universities, substance abuse facilities, EFAP, community centers, non-profit organizations, or international aid organizations in foreign countries.

There are different educational requirements for social work, depending on the area of specialization chosen. For example, to work as a direct-service social worker, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is required. But many positions require a master’s degree, especially in the area of clinical social work (MSW). Most master’s degree programs in social work provide a variety of fields of study, such as mental health or international and community development. Some undergraduate and all graduate degree programs involve a period of internship or fieldwork in the chosen area of specialization. In Ontario, by law, only registered members of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers can use the title and promote themselves as “Social Workers”.

Psychologists and psychological associatesstudy human behavior and the ways in which the human mind works, and are trained in the assessment, treatment, and prevention of behavioural and mental conditions. They diagnose neuropsychological disorders and dysfunctions as well as psychotic, neurotic, and personality disorders and dysfunctions. In addition, psychologists and psychological associates use a variety of approaches directed toward the maintenance and enhancement of physical, intellectual, emotional, social and interpersonal functioning.

Psychologists and psychological associates usually focus their practice in specific areas such as clinical psychology, counselling psychology, clinical neuropsychology, school psychology, forensic psychology, health psychology, rehabilitation psychology, or industrial/organizational psychology. Within these areas a psychologist or psychological associate may work with a variety of individual client populations such as children, adolescents, adults, or seniors, or may focus their attention on families, couples, or organizations.

They work in a range of settings including schools, hospitals, industry, social service agencies, rehabilitation facilities, and correctional facilities. Many psychologists and psychological associates have their own private practice.

In Ontario, only members of the College of Psychologists of Ontario may use the title ‘psychologist’ or ‘psychological associate’. A psychologist is someone who has earned a doctoral level degree in psychology, and a psychological associate is someone who has earned a master’s level in psychology and is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario. To qualify for professional registration to practice psychology requires the successful completion of graduate education and training in professional psychology, supervised professional experience, and examinations.

An important factor that separates psychologists/psychological associates from social workers is psychological testing. Although there are exceptions, psychologists and psychological associates are the only professionals who are specifically trained in administering, scoring, and interpreting psychological tests. These tests include personality assessments, cognitive or intellectual assessments, and other more specific tests such as those administered to provide or rule out a specific diagnosis. They also administer an array of academic and vocational assessments. Another factor that separates psychologists from social workers is their excessive training in terms of research and personality structure and theory (where social workers receive more training in some of the social and societal factors that might affect individuals), and in using different social services and resources in the community.

As a provider of EFAP services, Shepell recruits and works with only licensed mental health professionals that demonstrate the required level of training, competency, and experience applicable to the provision of counseling to address a wide variety of issues. Shepell’s clinical network includes Social Workers, Psychologists, and Psychological Associates.

EFAP makes it easy for individuals (and their spouses and dependents), couples, and families to get support. And with so many options available, you can get the support you need when and where you need it. If you’re still unsure what works best for you, start with what feels most comfortable. Explore some of the options available to you at workhealthlife.com and see how it’s easier than ever to access EFAP at your convenience, day or night, at home or away.

By Barbara Lesniak, Manager, Government Counselling Services

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