Substance Abuse Social Worker

substance abuse social worker

No one ever intends to become a habitual drug or alcohol user. It’s called the “Oops phenomenon,” according to Alan Leshner, Phd, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). He writes in the article “Oops: How Casual Drug Use leads to Addiction” on the NIDA website, that it happens almost by accident. Users generally start off experimenting and without realizing it, lose control.

Substance abuse, or the continual and increasing use of drugs or alcohol, becomes a problem not because individuals are lacking in willpower, but because the usage has altered the chemistry of their brains. Changing that chemistry takes commitment, perseverance, and recovery programs that are typically directed by substance abuse social workers.

Because substance abuse is a disease rooted in many issues, substance abuse social workers need to be well educated not only about the causes of substance abuse, but also in the sustaining factors – why clients cling to their dependencies. These professionals guide and support those in recovery, helping them examine the reasons for their dependencies, and charting the way to sobriety.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is the process of evolving from a voluntary user to a compulsive user of drugs or alcohol. It is the pathway that leads to addiction, and its destructive effects wreck individuals’ lives, affecting their performance at school and work, and causing them to participate in reckless behaviors, such as driving under the influence.
Substance abuse causes strains on relationships as family and friends notice shifts in users’ priorities. It promotes anger, defensive attitudes, depression, and moodiness. And, it often results in legal problems, such as those resulting from abusive or violent behaviors. (see What is substance abuse?).

These behavioral changes are the result of changing brain chemistry. Over time, biochemical brain changes caused by substance abuse not only encourage greater drug use, they change users in fundamental ways, affecting emotions, memories, motor skills, and personalities.

Where do Substance Abuse Social Workers Work?

Substance abuse social workers are found throughout communities in social service agencies, residential care facilities, hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers. They frequently run community-based educational and therapeutic programs designed to serve specific populations, such as teens who suffer from alcohol abuse.

What do Substance Abuse Social Workers Do?

Substance abuse social workers are committed to individuals who seek help for their drug and alcohol problems. They help these clients address their growing dependencies before they develop into addictions. Substance abuse social workers see their clients frequently – sometimes daily if the clients are in a residential program – working with them to provide consistent advice and support, and becoming an essential link to the possibility of living sober.

The Team Approach

Many substance abuse workers are members of multidisciplinary teams working in a hospital or rehabilitation facility. The team is composed of several other health care workers such as psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and other social workers. This collaborative knowledge base assures that all aspects of clients’ health care are addressed as they go through treatment.

Substance abuse social workers are on the frontline of patient care and interaction, gathering and providing team members with current patient information. Specialized training in the complexities of substance abuse gives these social workers the foundation they need to respond to both the medical and the psychological problems of their clients.


Initial client assessments give social workers a better understanding of clients’ backgrounds and some of the dynamics that have led to their substance abuse. Social issues are important to completely understanding the clients’ hurdles as they face sobriety. Some of these issues are the following: unemployment, educational levels, socio-economic backgrounds, current living arrangements, as well as family medical histories, criminal histories, and racial concerns.

Typically, clients have more than one issue causing them to use drugs or alcohol. Family or job conflicts are most common, but often patients have dual diagnoses. This means that they might have a mental health disorder, such as depression, that is contributing to their compulsions to use drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse social workers need to understand the complex interconnections between depression and the abuse activity, and they must be able to counsel their clients on how to counteract that effect.

Care Plan

The information gathered by substance abuse social workers and other team members helps determine care plans for clients. These plans outline specific details of clients’ treatments and include goals, suggested living arrangements, and any additional resources that team members feel are necessary for treatment.

Counseling and Therapy

Counseling is possibly the most important and frequently used skill that substance abuse social workers need to perfect. In therapeutic counseling sessions, these workers guide clients as they examine stressful situations, discovering some of the triggers that cause them to drink or take drugs. Often, substance abuse is a coping mechanism for clients who feel overwhelmed by life issues and circumstances.

By teaching life skills and suggesting alternative ways of approaching difficult situations, substance abuse social workers help clients change old habits. This form of therapy is called coping skills training and is only one of several different therapeutic approaches to working with patients.

According to the National Organization of Human Services, the most commonly used therapies include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to abuse drugs. (see Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
  • Multidimensional family therapy – a process developed for adolescents with drug abuse problems that addresses influences on their drug abuse patterns, and focuses on improving the functioning of families.
  • Motivational interviewing – helps individuals to change their behaviors and enter treatment.
  • Motivational incentives – uses positive reinforcement to encourage abstinence from drugs.

Social workers who specialize in working with substance abuse populations are typically familiar with these and other therapies, and must be adept at conducting both individual and group therapeutic sessions. They must have a good understanding of human development, group and individual behavioral systems, as well as all the elements of causation and the conditions that affect patients as they go through treatment and recovery.


A social worker’s involvement with substance abuse clients is often intense, requiring that he or she become acutely aware when clients’ behaviors indicate necessary interventions. Determining the appropriate interventions and follow-up treatments is pivotal to the success of recovery. And it requires substance abuse social workers to be alert while dealing with clients and resourceful in finding programs that assist their clients.


In addition to the work they do with clients, substance abuse social workers must make sure that case files are up-to-date and accurate. They are the conduit between the client and various therapeutic resources and medical caregivers, and must cultivate good communication skills, professional demeanors, and confidence in their actions.

Substance abuse social workers purpose is to help those for whom drugs or alcohol are becoming a problem. Their work with patients that involves counseling, directing programs, and recovery education is a life-giving link, and requires an intense desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

Educational Requirements for Social Work Licensure

Most substance abuse social workers have a master’s degree (MSW) in social work, according to a national survey conducted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Although the requirements vary from state to state, 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) commonly find entry-level positions, and frequently are given a separate licensure procedure that enables them to gain the qualifications needed to obtain their MSW. For more information get in touch with schools offering programs in social work.

Some states have separate licensure procedures for addiction social workers, offering 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. To know more see licensure requirements for social workers.

Substance Abuse Social Worker Salary.

Substance abuse social work is in the high-growth health care industry, which according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor is slated to grow faster than the general economy. In May 2020, the median salary for a substance abuse social workers was $48,720, according to the BLS.

Our Partner Listings
Sponsored Listings