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What’s the Difference between a Social Worker and a Psychologist?


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In my practice as a social worker doing therapy with individuals and couples, I often get asked about the difference between a social worker and a psychologist. Many people believe they need a psychologist for counselling. In fact, both social workers and psychologists can provide psychotherapy, and similar kinds of psychotherapy, The difference is in their training and orientation. I have a BA Honours in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work, so I have education and experience in both psychology and social work. I would like to give you my understanding of the difference between a Psychologist and a Social Worker doing private practice.


The Canadian Psychological Association describes a psychologist as someone who “studies how we think, feel and behave from a scientific viewpoint and applies this knowledge to help people understand, explain and change their behaviour. Psychologists engage in research, practice and teaching across a wide range of topics." While there are areas of study such as group and organizational behaviour, “a practicing psychologist is trained to assess and diagnose problems in thinking, feeling and behaviour as well to help people overcome or manage these problems… by using a variety of treatments or psychotherapies.”


The Canadian Association of Social Workers describes social work as “a profession concerned with helping individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance their individual and collective well-being. It aims to help people develop their skills and their ability to use their own resources and those of the community to resolve problems.” The services of social workers in private practice include " counselling, psychotherapy, mediation, sex therapy, policy and program development, organizational development, and employee assistance programs."


From these descriptions of social work and psychology, it appears that a psychologist in private practice is oriented to psychological problems, making diagnoses, and making individual changes. More of a disease-based model. In contrast, a social worker is oriented to facilitating the self-determination of people and communities. While psychology has traditionally been focused on the study of the mind and how it influences individual or group behaviour, in social work the environment people live in is also important.


How do I practice as a social worker?


When I work with people, we mutually identify goals for therapy. I view people as resilient and look for their strengths and abilities, and how those resources can be supported and developed. I am curious about how factors like race, culture, gender identity, and socio-economic background have influenced a person's experience, while also being aware that every person is unique. Whether I work with individuals or couples, I take a systems approach, meaning I look at the interactions between people and how they influence each other. Finally, I connect people to resources in the community that may support them.


If you have further questions about how I work, or would like support contact me at https://www.oceantidescounselling.ca/contact-page