Career Spotlight: Substance Abuse Social Worker

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Substance abuse social workers help people struggling with addictions to alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Substance abuse social workers help individuals struggling with addictions to alcohol, tobacco, illegal substances, or prescription drugs as well as people living with mental health issues. Using one-on-one sessions and group therapy backed up by long-term treatment plans, social workers can help clients recover from addiction and manage their conditions successfully.

The need for substance abuse social workers is great: roughly 46 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An estimated 20.7 million people ages 12 or older needed substance abuse treatment in 2017, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said in its annual report, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The number equates to about one in 13 people nationwide who needed treatment.

Enrolling in an online master’s in social work program can help students develop the strategies and skills necessary to make a difference in people’s lives as a social worker in the arena of substance abuse.

Working as a Substance Abuse Social Worker

A career as a substance abuse social worker can be rewarding yet challenging. Patients who suffer from addiction to the point of arriving on a social worker’s doorstep tend to be at one of the lowest points of their lives. And even though many want to quit, few are prepared to do what is necessary to successfully recover.

Those who work in the substance abuse field need to be empathetic and able to understand human emotions and communication. They also should be good listeners who are able to administer tough love when needed.

“You have to have a game face and a demeanor that’s empathetic to the issue from the past but completely focused on the future. You have to let your client know that you are the person who is going to help them make the move into tomorrow,” Daniel Hernandez, a social worker in Los Angeles, told the Chicago Tribune.

On the job, substance abuse social workers may be responsible for:

  • Keeping detailed patient records and reports: Taking on a new patient means preparing a comprehensive report that includes details about the patient’s substance abuse history, previous treatments, and the outcomes.
  • Conducting interviews with patients and family members: Interviews with patients and their families are crucial to successful ongoing care. The purpose is to learn more about the patient and his or her history of using addicting substances. Speaking with family helps social workers gain a more complete understanding of the patient’s mental state and substance history.
    Social workers need to be comfortable speaking to patients and family members of various backgrounds and situations, many of whom may be dealing with dysfunctional, low-income, or even violent environments.
    As treatment progresses, social workers may work closely with the patient’s family to ensure that the patient returns to a stable and substance-free home environment. A supportive community is imperative to a substance abuse patient’s success.
  • Acting as a representative for the patient: Social workers who specialize in substance abuse provide emotional support and personal help to patients. As patient advocates, they should be strong, dependable, and compassionate. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are also crucial for substance abuse social workers.
  • Developing treatment plans: A thorough and detailed treatment plan is imperative when helping people dealing with substance abuse to manage their issues. Drawing on the patient’s history and interviews, social workers formulate a detailed plan tailored to the individual’s needs. Recommendations may range from entering a rehabilitation program to seeking the help of a therapist and attending Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly.
  • Assisting with legal issues: Substance abuse social workers often need to step out of their professional role to assist clients with other issues. For instance, they should be prepared to help patients with legal and financial issues that arise as a result of their substance abuse.  Patients who cannot represent themselves may need a social worker to address the court or other legal representatives.

Employment Outlook for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Substance abuse social workers have a lot of variety in their place of employment. Potential employment avenues in this field include outpatient care centers, individual and family services, community food and housing services, emergency and relief services, substance abuse and mental health facilities, government organizations, insurance carriers, post-secondary schools, local government, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, and other residential care offices.

The field of substance abuse and social work is projected to grow. Positions in the field are anticipated to increase by 16% from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have also negatively affected the mental health of people all over the globe, according to Nirmita Panchal’s (et al) paper, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.” Social isolation, business and school closures, financial and economic distress, and anxiety about the virus itself all present optimal conditions for an increase in substance abuse.

The BLS also notes that the median salary for substance abuse social workers is $43,250 per year. Top earners can make as much as $76,020 annually, while the bottom 10% of substance abuse social workers earn $27,230 per year.

Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work Program

Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work degree program can prepare graduates to work in the field of substance abuse. Because the program is 100% online, it is accessible for working professionals who want to pursue their degree while maintaining their work and family responsibilities.

Recommended Reading:

Ohio University Blog, “Social Workers Addressing the Opioid Crisis”
Ohio University Blog, “The Importance of Patient Education and Prescription Drug Abuse”
Ohio University Blog, “Social Workers Reducing the Impact of Poverty”


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Opioid Data Analysis and Resources
SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Trends Report
SAMHSA, Recovery and Recovery Support
Chicago Tribune, Social workers: On the frontlines helping people, families in need
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Social Workers, The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse