Career Spotlight: Substance Abuse Social Work

With substance abuse on the rise (PDF 1 MB), social workers specializing in the area are in high demand. Substance abuse social workers use their specialized knowledge to help those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse to cope and make a full recovery.

What is substance abuse social work?

Substance abuse social work involves the application of social work principles to help individuals struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Reducing or stopping substance abuse can be extremely difficult, particularly when individuals have become physically dependent upon substances. Because of this, many people who abuse drugs or alcohol find it necessary to enlist the support of professionals to begin the process of recovery.

Why do we need substance abuse social workers?

Substance abuse puts individuals at high risk of adverse health and social consequences. Those struggling with addiction often experience co-occurring medical and mental health conditions, relationship difficulties, joblessness, homelessness, and involvement in the justice system. With broad training across multiple systems, social workers are uniquely positioned to assist clients with the multiple and complex challenges with which they may be struggling.

How do social workers help those struggling with addiction?

Substance abuse social workers are employed in a wide variety of settings, including but not limited to:

  • Medical and psychiatric hospitals
  • Detoxification centers
  • Residential treatment programs and structured intensive outpatient addiction programs
  • Community health and mental health outpatient clinics
  • Clinics offering opiate recovery alternatives such as methadone or Suboxone
  • Forensic settings, including jails and prisons, courts, and police departments
  • Educational settings
  • Other governmental and not-for-profit agencies

Within these settings, social workers may provide direct services in the form of individual psychotherapy and/or case management, therapeutic and psychoeducational groups, crisis intervention and client advocacy work, and prevention work with at-risk populations. Substance abuse social workers may also offer their expertise in the form of consultation, education, training, research, and policy development.

What education and skills are needed to be a substance abuse social worker?

A career in substance abuse social work is simultaneously challenging and rewarding. Those who consider entering this field are likely highly empathetic, strong communicators, possess excellent assessment skills, and work well in high-stress environments. Substance abuse social workers are also effective collaborators who partner with clients to create individualized treatment plans and track progress toward goals. Practitioners additionally offer support to clients as they navigate multiple systems by coordinating with other medical and mental health providers, family members, court staff, employment coaches, and housing advocates. Substance abuse social workers are often trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, motivational interviewing, mental health counseling, and trauma work.

What certifications or licensure are needed to become a substance abuse social worker?

Substance abuse social workers may begin their professional careers in various areas of social work, including working with individuals and families, with clients with histories of trauma and mental health concerns, and in the criminal justice system. Social workers’ experience in these areas makes them valuable to clients as they navigate systems and access resources.

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals offers three levels of credentialing. While not required to conduct substance abuse social work, these certifications can be helpful for BSW- and MSW-level social workers seeking to increase their professional standing and improve their knowledge base.

With substance abuse on the rise and increased funding to address its impact on individuals and communities, the field of substance abuse social work is in need of more talented and committed practitioners. Take the first step toward a challenging and rewarding career in substance abuse social work by finding a course of study that suits you at SocialWork@Simmons.

Citation for this content: SocialWork@Simmons, the online Master of Social Work program from the Simmons School of Social Work.