What is Clinical Social Work?

As I finished yet another year of school this year and look towards my graduation in November of 2022, I thought it would be a good idea to write a piece about Clinical Social Work. 

Several questions and comments I get when I tell people that I am getting a Masters in Clinical Social Work are: 

“What is that?” 

“How does Social Work have anything to do with sport and athletes?” 

“So you’re going to take kids away?” 

“Why didn’t you just do Sport Psychology?” 

These are fair statements and mostly come from a place of simply not knowing. Clinical Social Work is a relatively new field compared to Psychology or even Counseling. There is a large misconception that Social Work is about taking children away from their families and helping the poor while making absolutely no money. 

This is far from the full truth. I believe that society and more specifically the news play a large role in why this is the image attached to Social Workers. Time after time television shows and movies portray Social Workers in this very narrow light. I won’t go into the full history of the profession of Social Work here as that might take a few articles but I do want to paint a more detailed picture with regards to what Clinical Social Work is. 

Part of my reason for this is because I work in sport. Over the last several months I’ve had several athletes ask me what I am doing, what my career path has been and what my goals are for the work that I do. Although we are starting to see more Licensed Clinical Social Workers within sport, we need more. My hope is that this piece will shed light AND empower young athletes that are just starting to embark on this journey of “what do I want to do with my life” to look into Clinical Social Work because it is truly an amazing field. 

So what is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker? 

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is a Licensed Mental Health professional. This means that an LCSW has received a Masters in Social Work and then spends several years under supervision in a clinical setting before taking a Licensing exam. When it comes to Mental Health you must have a license to practice in the state that you live in. LCSW’s do NOT prescribe medication and oftentimes we go on to seek out additional training in various interventions. I think it is extremely important to know that not all therapists (clinicians that have a license to practice) are the same. We all specialize and carry out various forms of clinical interventions. 

So you might be thinking OK well how does this differ from a psychologist or a counselor? 

Clinical Social Work is not derived from the Medical Model. I personally think this is a huge strength. (I will also recognize and admit my own bias here) In addition to being trained in various forms of psychotherapy, Clinical Social Work is rooted in the values of the Social Work profession. These values include service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. These are at the core of how we assess and intervene in a clinical setting. But these values also guide us to engage in policy and political action. Our code of ethics places an emphasis on advocating for populations that are marginalized and vulnerable. Clinical Social Workers can do this in numerous ways including micro, mezzo or macro level engagement. 

Clinical Social Workers also place an emphasis on the environment that a person is in. When working with individuals (or groups) we assess how an individual fits into their greater environment and how the environment impacts their mental health and well being. By doing this we are constantly keeping in mind the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression and how these are connecting to impact someones health and well being. 

Lastly, I believe something that differentiates Clinical Social Work is that it operates off a strengths based model. A strength based model focuses on the positive attributes of an individual or group. We focus on what an individual does well, what resources they have in place and what support systems they have established.  A deficits based model is more about what is lacking or what is wrong with an individual. In my opinion much of the medical model and health care system operates from a deficits based model. 

What I feel is most unique about Clinical Social Work is that there are so many directions that one can take their degree and licensure. The ability to redirect and change professions within the realm of Clinical Social Work is profound and extremely appealing. Several of my classmates currently intern with and plan to work with the Police force. Oftentimes Social Workers are required on site when 911 is contacted. Some of my classmates plan to work only with children and primarily in the school system while others want to work with adults in addiction and substance abuse facilities. Others strictly want to work in policy where they will advocate on campaigns or directly work with legislatures. The possibilities are endless. 

I personally want to stick to athletics which is unique in itself. I believe that Licensed Clinical Social Workers are excellent candidates for working in sport. Athletes across all levels need more people who will continue to advocate for their safety and well being.

I am extremely interested in micro level work (i.e working one on one with coaches and athletes) through a Trauma Informed lens that uses multiple styles of intervention such as Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Somatic intervention. I am also very passionate about more mezzo and macro level work. This might look like helping an organization develop proactive structures, programming and resources around Mental Health that support both coaches and athletes. 

Again, the possibilities in my opinion are endless and very exciting. I want nothing more than to change the landscape of how we view and tackle mental health in elite sport. 

If you are interested in Clinical Social Work, want to hear more, or chat about Social Work in Sport please reach out. I would love to hear from you. I wake up every single day knowing that the decision to apply to my MSW program and further pursue the field of Clinical Social Work was hands down the best decision I have ever made in my life. I hope to help others do the same. 


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