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Social work superheroes: 8 types of social workers who make a difference

Jess Scherman By  Jess Scherman  |  @jescherman  | 

Types of Social Workers

Helping others has probably always been second nature to you. You'd interrupt a rousing game of Red Rover when someone slipped on the grass and twisted his ankle. You'd go the extra mile to make sure the new student felt comfortable in the lunchroom on her first day. And you've spent countless hours on the receiving end of phone calls when your friends are going through tough break-ups or problems with their parents.

Basically, you're Batman when it comes to helping friends and family. They just shine their light into the sky, and you come running.  

No matter what the situation, everyone in your life has always been able to count on you. Pursuing a degree in social work could give you the opportunity to hone in on your natural penchant for helping people. A degree can also provide a professional-level skill set that can help you be successful in the field once you graduate.  

One of the wonderful things about this field is that the superheroes of social work wear many different hats. With several types of social work to consider, some people find their sweet spot right off the bat, while others crave change and adopt several different specialties over the years. 

Although there are many notable types of social workers, we've outlined below eight of the most common ones. See if you can find your perfect fit.  

8 Types of social workers

1. Child & family social workers

Child and family social workers come to the rescue whether a family has fallen on hard times or one or more of them are suffering abuse or neglect. The end goal for these social workers is to improve the general quality of life for the children they work with. This includes creating a safe physical environment for a child, as well as a safe emotional and psychological environment.  

A solid grasp on therapy and counseling practices is necessary, but there is also a deep need for child and family social workers to maintain a steadfast knowledge of the law and public policy. This is largely because a great majority of this person's experiences will deal with social issues including poverty, abuse, homelessness and discrimination.   

2. Community social workers

This sector of social work is multifaceted. The focus of these professionals can be on community building, on community organizing or on a blend of the two. Community social workers pair up with various nonprofits and grassroots organizations to raise funds, write grants, garner support, plan infrastructure and perform other behind-the-scenes tasks that help community initiatives yield the greatest benefit to community members.  

Many neighborhoods have seen great healing at the hand of community social workers in the wake of local tragedy or natural disasters.   

3. School social workers

Teachers profoundly impact children and teens, especially during the developmental years. But things like poverty, community violence and family conflicts can make learning particularly challenging for some students.  

Teachers don't always have the availability to address each individual student's external struggles head-on; that's why we have school social workers. They are equipped to address the social and psychological issues that act as roadblocks to academic progress. School social workers use active counseling, crisis intervention and prevention programs to try to ensure no student falls through the cracks.   

4. Medical & health social workers

Medical conditions can be taxing on the body, but there can also be an onslaught of strife behind the scenes—emotional, financial and social struggles will often occur as side effects of severe illness and medical treatment.  

Medical and health social workers play the part of case manager, patient navigator and therapist all in one. The day-to-day experience of these social work professionals is constantly changing. They are experts in handling crises amidst managing a regular caseload of patients with widely varying needs, regularly working alongside doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to determine the best plan for each particular patient.  

5. Mental health & psychiatric social workers

Mental health and psychiatric social workers focus their work directly on high-needs patients. From performing psychotherapy to diagnosing mental illness to assembling discharge plans, this realm of social work is integral to the well-being of a significant portion of our population. In fact, a reported 26.2 percent of American adults suffer from one or more diagnosable mental disorders.  

Preparing these clients for a smooth transition to a residential care center or back into their communities is an ambitious and complex task. Mental health and psychiatric social workers maintain open lines of communication both with clients' family members and with community resources to be sure that they get the support they need.   

6. Substance abuse social workers

This realm of social work goes hand-in-hand with mental health social work, as it's not uncommon for clients to suffer from both a mental disorder and a substance abuse problem simultaneously. Substance abuse social workers and mental health and psychiatric social workers are especially effective at addressing co-occurring disorders.  

Substance abuse social workers focus on long-term intervention, a comprehensive approach to intervening upon addiction while also acknowledging probable setbacks such as relapse. The work environment can vary from hospitals and clinics to treatment centers and external organizations, but the social workers' mission remains the same—to uncover hidden problems and implement lasting solutions.   

7. Justice & corrections social workers

Social work has become an essential component of the nation's criminal justice system over the last hundred years. Social workers in this avenue serve as the frontline staff providing services to the criminal and juvenile justice populations.  

Working within the justice system requires one to be both adaptable and analytical, assuring that the welfare and quality of life of inmates is upheld. Correctional social workers also design and lead a variety of educational and psychosocial groups to help inmates rehabilitate and prepare for a successful reintegration into society upon release, at times even serving as their probation officers when that time comes.   

8. Hospice & palliative social workers

Hospice and palliative social workers focus primarily on the psychosocial needs of clients and families affected by life-limiting illnesses caused by old age. Geriatric social work operates with the general goal of maintaining or improving their quality of life.  

This sector of social work requires a variety of duties: provide relief from physical pain; assist with decision-making at or near the end of a patient's life; assist family and friends in caring for and supporting the patient; and provide grief counseling to loved ones.

Choose your path, make a difference

Being a social worker isn't for everyone. It takes a compassionate, fearless, hard-working person to be successful serving people to this degree. It might take someone like you. If you envision yourself as one of the eight types of social workers outlined above, grab your superhero mask and head over to St. Scholastica's social work degree page to learn more

Jess Scherman


Jess is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. She researches and writes content to help current and prospective students on their path to educational success. As a published poet with a passion for the transformative nature of higher education, she loves discovering new ways to use her writing as a tool to help others.

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