How to become a mental health social worker in Australia

A mental health social worker helping and talking to a group of people.
A mental health social worker helping and talking to a group of people.

Imagine a career where you make a profound difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health challenges every day. This is the reality for a mental health social worker, a profession that specifically addresses the complexities of mental wellbeing.

Mental health is a growing issue in Australia. According to the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (2020-2022) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 42.9 per cent of Australians aged 16–85 experience a mental disorder in their lifetime and around 21.5 per cent experience a mental disorder lasting 12 months. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) suggests that one in five Australians experience a mental health disorder.

As demand for specialised mental health services continues to grow, mental health social workers are increasingly vital, providing support and advocacy for those in need. They help shape a more compassionate, understanding society by advocating for systemic changes to improve mental healthcare access and quality.

Whether you’re contemplating a career switch that aligns more closely with your passion for helping others or enhancing existing skills in healthcare or social services, understanding the path to becoming a mental health social worker is the first step to translating your aspirations into action.

Let’s explore how to get started in this rewarding career, the qualifications you’ll need and how mental health workers can positively impact society and Australian lives.

What is a mental health social worker?

Mental health social workers function at the intersection between social work and mental healthcare. You'll support people facing mental health challenges in a variety of ways. This specialised role involves a deep understanding of the social factors contributing to mental health issues and the therapeutic approaches needed to address them. You’ll collaborate closely with psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals, ensuring a holistic approach to your clients’ treatment in mental health clinics, hospitals, community health centres and private practice.

Mental health social workers are dedicated to social justice, helping those affected by mental health issues, including individuals grappling with substance and alcohol abuse, domestic and family violence, poverty and other social challenges. Their work involves formulating, coordinating and implementing treatment plans for their clients while showcasing compassion and empathy towards their mental health needs.  They’re committed to improving their clients’ quality of life through direct practice, advocacy and psychoeducation.

Responsibilities include:

Assessing mental health needs and providing support

You’ll evaluate your clients’ psychological conditions, identify their needs and offer support. This could range from crisis intervention to long-term care planning.

Developing and implementing treatment plans

Working with other healthcare professionals, you’ll develop tailored treatment plans that address the psychological and socio-economic factors affecting your clients.

Advocating for access to resources and services

You’ll play a crucial role in ensuring people receive the services they need, from healthcare and housing to employment and education, advocating with various institutions and organisations on their behalf.

Mental health social work diverges from other social work in a couple more key ways:


To achieve accreditation as a Mental Health Social Worker by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), you must complete a period of supervised practice and demonstrate your competency in the field. Accreditation testifies to your expertise and enables you to obtain an Allied Health Medicare Provider Number. With accreditation, mental health social workers can receive referrals under government-funded programs, broadening the scope of their practice and their impact on the community.

Socio-environmental approach

The distinction between a mental health social worker and roles in counselling or psychology is also significant. While all these professions support mental wellbeing, mental health social workers bring a unique perspective by integrating socio-environmental factors into their therapeutic approach. You’ll address clients’ psychological needs and advocate for systemic changes to remove the barriers to mental healthcare, embodying a holistic approach to wellbeing that spans individual and social concerns.

Understanding your unique role in mental health is the first step toward a fulfilling career in this field. By embracing the additional training and the challenges and rewards of this specialisation, you can make a lasting difference in the lives of those you serve, advocating for a world where mental health is accessible and prioritised for all.

Steps to becoming a mental health social worker

Embarking on a career as a mental health social worker is a journey of education, experience and professional development. Here’s how to begin this rewarding path:

1. Complete an accredited degree

The foundational step is to earn a degree from an accredited mental health social work program, ensuring that your education meets the high standards required for professional practice.

The Master of Social Work (Qualifying) at the University of Canberra Online is accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), making it a solid choice for those aiming to enter this field.

The program covers the essential theories and practices of social work and includes specialised training in mental health, preparing graduates to address complex mental health needs effectively.

2. Gain practical experience

Gaining hands-on experience in a mental health setting is crucial. If you’re considering this pathway, it’s a great idea to get experience during your degree to ensure mental health social work is right for you so you can target your post-degree work accordingly.

The AASW requires aspiring mental health social workers to have at least two years of full-time, post-qualifying experience in a role directly involving mental healthcare before they can be accredited. This practical work is essential for developing the skills needed to support clients effectively and navigate the complexities of mental health services.

The AASW also has detailed requirements for supervision and demonstrating competencies in mental health social work. Supervision ensures support from experienced professionals and guidance for early-career social workers, facilitating their growth and learning.

3. Become a member of a professional association

Joining a professional association, such as the AASW, is a significant step for any social worker specialising in mental health. It can enhance your professional credibility and networks, opening doors to career opportunities and collaborations that enrich your practice and impact.

Membership offers numerous benefits, including access to resources, professional development opportunities and a community of peers. It also signals a commitment to the ethical standards and ongoing learning required in this dynamic field.

Why choose to become a mental health social worker?

With growing recognition of mental health’s critical role in our overall wellbeing, the need for skilled professionals in this area has never been higher. It’s a great time to pursue this rewarding career.

This surge in need translates to robust job growth in the sector, offering stability and numerous opportunities for those ready to step into this vital role.

Mental health social workers are at the forefront of addressing this demand, providing essential services that range from crisis intervention to long-term support, counselling and advocacy. The AIHW reports that accredited mental health social workers are the fastest-growing profession within the mental health sector, growing at an average rate of 9 per cent annually. This growth outpaces that of mental health occupational therapists (6 per cent), psychologists (5 per cent), psychiatrists (4 per cent) and mental health nurses (3 per cent).

Beyond the practical aspects of job security and demand, the role of a mental health social worker offers deep personal satisfaction.

Imagine the impact of helping someone navigate the challenges of mental illness, guiding them towards recovery, and watching them reclaim their wellbeing and happiness. This career offers the unique privilege of making a tangible difference in the lives of individuals and communities. The knowledge that your efforts can change – or even save – lives provides a sense of purpose and fulfilment that’s rare in many professions.

However, mental health social work extends beyond individual client interactions. You’ll also advocate for social changes that improve mental healthcare access and quality for all Australians, shaping policies and practices that promote a healthier, more supportive society.

Becoming a mental health social worker isn’t just a career choice. It’s a commitment to being a beacon of hope and a force for change in a world that increasingly recognises the importance of mental health. It offers a unique combination of professional opportunities and the profound satisfaction of knowing your work contributes to others’ wellbeing and a better society.

Become an advocate for mental health

Take the first step towards a career that not only fulfils you personally but significantly impacts the world around you. Becoming a mental health social worker is more than a career path. It’s a commitment to advocating for mental health, driving change and transforming lives for individuals, families and communities.

By specialising in mental health social work, you’ll gain the skills and knowledge to offer support that’s both compassionate and informed, and grounded in the latest research and best practices. Choosing this path puts you at the forefront of addressing some of the most pressing mental health challenges of our times.

The University of Canberra’s Master of Social Work (Qualifying) program is designed to equip you with the expertise needed to become a leader in mental health advocacy. Accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), it offers a comprehensive curriculum balancing theoretical knowledge with practical experience, preparing you to meet the challenge head-on and seize the opportunities of this rewarding field.

Empower your passion to drive change and transform lives. Learn more about the Master of Social Work (Qualifying) by visiting our website and downloading a brochure.

You can also get in touch with one of our Student Enrolment Advisers on 1300 471 770.