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Addiction Social Worker

Learn about the addiction social work career

addiction social worker

Addiction is a complex disease that presents enormous challenges not only for addicts, but also for their caregivers. Their craving for drugs easily overruns addicts' weakened willpower and causes relapses, but dedicated addiction social workers stick with their clients, helping them get back on track.

People who choose to become addiction social workers have a special interest in providing that help. They are knowledgeable, compassionate professionals and demonstrate the unfailing commitment addicts need to work through the difficult times.

Where do addiction social workers find jobs?

While many addiction social workers work in community clinics and hospitals, there are many opportunities to work in specialized outpatient addiction programs offered both by state human services departments and by private behavioral health clinics. Increasingly, addiction social workers find positions in larger drug rehabilitation facilities where residents participate in long-term programs.

What do addiction social workers do?

Addiction social workers are typically the frontline helpers in their clients' struggles with addiction. Their participation in the treatment of addicts is a complicated process requiring a high degree of skill, patience, understanding and a commitment to helping patients recover.

Educational and licensing requirements for social workers

In a national survey conducted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), 79% of the 5,000 respondents had a master's degree (MSW) in social work. Most states require a master's degree as well as several thousand hours of supervised, clinical experience. Those with bachelor's degrees in social work (BSW) are generally accommodated with a separate licensure procedure that enables them to gain the qualifications needed to obtain their MSW.  (find schools offering social work degree programs).

Some states have separate licensure procedures for addiction social workers, offering a certification as an addiction counselor (CAC) to those of all educational levels; or licensure as an addiction counselor (LAC) to those who possess a master's degree or higher in the behavioral health sciences. (see social work licensing requirements).

Completing an undergraduate program in social work is a good way to gain entry into the field of addiction social work. It might provide access to entry-level positions with state licensure, but an MSW is still the best path for advancement.

Students interested in working as addiction social workers should look for volunteer opportunities in their communities. These often lead to entry-level positions, or internships, and permit students to start building experience that adds substance to their resume, college, or graduate school applications.

Understanding that the foundation of addiction stems from traumatic life issues, addiction social workers help addicts address the complex psychological issues that arise in therapy. As counselors, they actively listen and provide the knowledgeable guidance, support, and reassurance clients need to recover.

Addiction social workers often work as part of multidisciplinary teams of health care providers. Teams typically include psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed counselors, nurses, and addiction social workers. Each member contributes his or her expertise in developing patient care plans based on individual assessments, and each participates in various aspects of clients' care.

Assessments. Addiction social workers' initial assessments are not only focused on the level and the nature of clients' substance use, but also on uncovering any social issues that might contribute to their addictions. These include concerns such as unemployment, education, the client’s current living situation and family background, financial status, language, cultural, or racial concerns, involvement in gangs, violent behavior, or criminal activities. It's also a tool for uncovering any mental illnesses, physical illnesses, and family health history. This therapeutic profile is the foundation for the care plan that will chart the patient's path to sobriety. (see Addiction Assessments).

Care Plan. Care plans describe the treatments developed by the multidisciplinary team. These treatments consist of needed therapies, lifestyle recommendations such as living arrangements or special facilities, goals for evaluating progress, and any medications prescribed by the psychiatrist or physician.

Addiction social workers' salaries

Addiction social worker positions are projected to increase with the above-average growth of the health care industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2010, the median salary for addiction social workers was $41,880, according to the BLS.

Goal-setting. Working with their interdisciplinary teams, addiction social workers help establish goals as part of clients’ treatment plans. A goal might be to complete a particular series of therapeutic sessions or to enter into a particular kind of treatment center or group home. Goals are not only important to the team, but they also give clients an important sense of accomplishment.

Periodic therapeutic evaluations are another type of goal. These are milestones that document therapeutic progress, charting shifts in clients’ perspectives or attitudes. While recovery is a highly personal, nonlinear process, addiction social workers gauge clients' relative progress by the markers revealed in these evaluations.

Case management. Addiction social workers are typically responsible for the administration and management of client case files, maintaining full documentation of the treatments, service providers, case details, and client progress. They are responsible for updating team members with any information that might require their attention or intervention.

Addiction social workers spend much of their time monitoring and directing services for clients, which includes executing directives by physicians, psychiatrists, or other therapists. They are responsible for making the arrangements so patients can be effectively treated. Depending on clients' current situations, this could include finding the right rehabilitation facilities, enrolling them in the right therapeutic sessions, making outpatient arrangements, finding transportation, or arranging day care for their children. It might also include helping clients apply for food stamps, low-income housing, or financial assistance.

Addiction social workers ensure their clients have access to programs that are pivotal to their recovery. In cases where access is restricted, it is their responsibility to advocate for their clients with the goal of getting their clients admitted.


Communication. Addiction social workers are typically the critical interface between clients and the multidisciplinary team. As active, perceptive listeners, social workers stay current with clients' changing needs and conditions. They are often the first to catch behavioral warning signs, enabling the team to act proactively when new therapeutic responses are needed.

Knowledge. Social workers must understand the medical issues as well as the psychological facets of addiction. Their skill at counseling techniques, and their understanding of diagnostic procedures, therapeutic options, and mental health indicators are all important to the well-being of their clients. But, specifically, they must understand their individual clients and the nature of their addictions so they can recognize changes in symptoms and behavior.

Addiction is a complex diagnosis that is often further complicated by secondary or co-occurring diagnoses such as heart disease, diabetes, or mental illness. The addition of a second or third diagnosis means the social worker must be even more aware of patient dynamics. Client evaluations become more difficult because patients with co-occurring disorders often experience more severe mental, physical, and emotional problems, possibly causing a relapse in addiction.

Clients rely on social workers help in maneuver through the bureaucracy of social and welfare services. They are often overwhelmed and need social workers to guide them through the health care, welfare, social services, and unemployment systems.

Addiction social workers play a vital role in bringing patients back from addictions. Because the process is long and filled with setbacks, addiction social workers need to be able to guide and inspire their clients over the long run. People who choose this career are caring, hard workers who understand that everyone should get another chance.

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