Differences Between Clinical and Non-Clinical Social Work

The need for professional social workers continues to grow. It’s important to understand the different types of social work — clinical or non-clinical — so that you can make an informed decision about which area of practice is the best fit for you. While both types of social workers are educated at the graduate level, there are key differences.

Non-clinical social workers — sometimes also referred to as macro-level social workers — effect change by seeking reform and change within the larger systems, services, and policies that impact individuals, groups, and communities. Macro practitioners serve as community organizers, policy analysts, and legislative advocates.

Clinical social workers work directly with their clients to improve the quality of their lives. Many integrate advocacy into their work and consider themselves activist practitioners, which is exactly our approach to teaching at Simmons.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social work is one of the most common types of social work in which one identifies and solves problems to strengthen the functioning and quality of life of individuals, families, groups, and communities. Clinical social workers can work in a number of areas, depending on the population.

Some examples include, but are not limited to:

Child and Family: Social workers promote the well-being of children and families wherever they are, including schools within the community, and provide support directly in clients’ homes. If you are interested in working with families and children and want to provide support for them, you may wish to focus your study in this area in order to strengthen skills that will serve you in this area of social work.

Trauma and Interpersonal Violence: Most social workers serve clients who have histories of trauma, either at the interpersonal, domestic, or systemic levels. If you work with severe or complex trauma, you’ll serve clients who have experienced physical and emotional neglect; physical, emotional, and sexual trauma; trauma sustained through systemic and structural forms of oppression; early attachment disruption; intimate partner violence; and communal violence.

Mental Health and Addictions: In this area, you will learn to work with clients who have substance use disorders, a range of mental or emotional difficulties, chronic and persistent mental illness, and/or co-occurring mental illness and addictions.

Health and Aging: Health care social workers focus on supporting clients and their families during times of medical illness. They provide assessment and intervention that relates to chronic illness, disability, end-of-life care, and ethical and legal concerns. Social workers who work in health care settings are found in behavioral health homes or medical homes, hospitals, community health settings, physical rehabilitation institutions, and nursing homes. Social workers working with older adults provide support to empower and enhance quality of life as they face concerns related to their long-term care and well-being.

Clinical social workers also advocate for their clients’ needs. Due to their direct involvement with their clients and communities, clinical social workers are primed to identify trends that may need to be addressed through policy changes. Almost all clinical social workers, even in private practice, work with other social workers and clinical professionals to effect policy change and coordinate care and services.

At Simmons, we train clinical social workers for practice in direct settings, by educating them about theories of human development, relational and group process, relational-cultural learning, and social policy in the service of individuals, groups, families, and communities.

Non-Clinical Social Worker

Non-clinical or macro-level social workers impact individuals through program and service development and implementation, at the policy level, and at the service delivery level. Macro practitioners cite communities as the identified client system and identify key areas for change. With community members and agency partners, macro practitioners work to address gaps in resources, inequities. and limitations on access to services because of systemic or structural oppressions. They also strive to remove roadblocks for clients who have instrumental and emotional needs that are not being met.

Macro practice may include a mix of administrative duties and some form of counseling. Work can be in private or public organizations, and can be at the individual, group, or administrative level. Macro practitioners are often involved in emotional and mental health-related counseling and therapy, rehabilitation services, conflict resolution, mediation, policy analysis, and implementation.

Next Steps

It’s important to determine at what level you want to effect change. Wherever your interests lie, it is important to know the difference between non-clinical and clinical social work, so you can decide which one is a better fit for your experience, personality, and skills.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in clinical social work, the acclaimed online program SocialWork@Simmons, from Simmons University School of Social Work, focuses on clinical practice. Our curriculum offers four fields of Specialized Course of Study that allow you to develop skills in an area of particular clinical interest to you.

Citation for this content: SocialWork@Simmons, the online Master of Social Work program from the Simmons School of Social Work.