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Inequity Still Exists Between Mental Health Counselors and Social Workers

By David H. DeBusman, LPC-S
San Antonio

During my six years of post-master’s experience in the counseling field, I have worked at agencies with a wide scope of client populations struggling with issues ranging from substance abuse to marital difficulties. At these agencies, I worked as part of a team—alongside psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers—to fulfill our common goal: to help our clients. 

Though we work as a team, I cannot help but notice that social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists all receive more acclaim and recognition for their efforts than mental health counselors. I find this disturbing because social workers in particular share a similar training path with mental health counselors, including national accreditation of all training programs and licensure in all 50 states.  

Psychiatrists and psychologists are set apart because of their prescribing privileges and ability to interpret intelligence and personality tests. But the primary function of both mental health counselors and social workers is to help ameliorate a mental disorder or a life-changing issue. So if the training that mental health counselors and social workers receive is comparable, and their work orientation is the same, why do mental health counselors not have the same pay scale, recognition, or advancement as social workers? 

I do not believe that the difference between the two professions has anything to do with training, philosophical approach, or licensure. It has to do with lobbying and political clout. 

Both fields train clinically sound professionals who are very capable of providing mental health services, but disparity exists in employment opportunities. Mental health counselors are still not allowed to serve in the uniformed services as officers as their counterparts do. And only recently have counselors been recognized for employment within the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). 

I have read countless articles on the need for more professionals who are trained and capable of working with veterans and members of the military. The Department of Defense and the VA have both attested to the lack of sufficient social workers and psychologists to meet the demands of servicemembers and their families—while highly qualified, educated, and motivated mental health counselors watch from the sidelines, barred from lending their services and talents to the cause. Even though the VA has recognized mental health counselors, there still seems to be an uncertainty about their capabilities to work alongside social workers.

This disparity will continue unless all the players—politicians, government, social workers, mental health counselors, and all their professional bodies—realize it is not about protecting professional turf, but about helping and improving others’ lives. I hope that the disparity between mental health counselors and other members of the mental health profession will vanish and that one day soon, mental health counselors will enjoy access to work in the same positions as social workers. Continued advocacy at the local, national, and international level is the only way to bring about parity for mental health counselors to secure equal employment, pay, and recognition. 

David H. DeBusman, LPC–S, is a team leader of an Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACT) with Telecare Corporation in San Antonio. You may reach him at