The unfortunate truth is that an alarming number of Americans have a substance abuse problem. In 2018, 67,367 Americans died of a drug overdose. In 2019, the number rose 5 percent to more than 70,000 overdose deaths, according to preliminary data from the CDC.
As many Americans are aware, opiates are the number one killer, especially synthetic opiates like fentanyl. Fully two-thirds of all opiate overdose deaths involve a synthetic opiate, as opposed to a naturally derived opiate like heroin.
These overdoses prove why substance abuse social workers are so important. With the right intervention a drug overdose is preventable. A substance abuse social worker can work with an addict to help create a recovery plan that’s effective and tailored to an individual’s unique needs. Every time a social worker can help an addict to get clean they are potentially saving a life.
This guide covers the day-to-day responsibilities of a substance abuse social worker, the required level of education and experience to become a substance abuse social worker, as well as the average salary for a drug abuse social worker in the United States.
How to start a career as a substance abuse social worker
There are lots of job opportunities for anyone ready to begin a career as a substance abuse social worker in America. The following list presents the typical path that many take to start their careers.
- Volunteer at a drug treatment center. Working with addicts can be quite challenging at times. Before beginning a career in the field, a social worker might want to gain some hands on experience to ensure that the work is right for them.
- Complete an MSW or Ph.D. program at a CSWE accredited university. The CSWE accreditation is essential, since it’s often impossible to receive an advanced social work license without it. (CHECK OUT OUR DEGREE PAGE FOR MORE SPECIFIC INFO)
- Some social workers may be able to start their career directly after graduation. However, if there are no job openings in the substance abuse field, a social worker can gain experience at a related social work agency.
- Take a training course in substance abuse counseling.
- Once a social worker has several years of experience, the right training and an advanced license, they should have no problem finding work in the field of substance abuse and drug counseling. (CHECK OUT OUR STATE PAGES FOR STATE LICENSING REQUIREMENTS)
While most jobs are located in cities, there are some opportunities to work in smaller communities. In this case, a social worker may divide their time between several different small towns in the same area.
What is a substance abuse social worker?
The job of a substance abuse social worker is varied. Even within the profession, there are different roles for different social workers. For instance, some social workers engage directly with clients and provide therapy, either individually or in a group setting. When working with a patient, a lot of the job is not just addressing drug abuse, but figuring out why that person began using in the first place.
Those who are chemically dependent often have an underlying reason why they began using in the first place. To create an effective treatment plan it’s essential to find this underlying trauma, to tease it out and address it so that it’s less likely to cause the patient to relapse in the future.
Other substance abuse social workers engage with families who’ve been affected by drug use. They can provide counseling, recommend state services, ensure that the children are well cared for and help the family to find better housing, if need be. A drug addict’s behavior can break a family apart and it can sometimes fall on the shoulders of a substance abuse social worker to try and put the family back together.
Substance abuse social worker requirements, skills, and experience
Most substance abuse social workers have a master’s degree or higher, since a graduate’s degree is typically required in order to qualify for an advanced social work license. Some positions require that the applicant have two or more years of experience working in a rehabilitation clinic or other drug and alcohol setting. However, not all positions require previous experience.
Patience and empathy are a few of the key skills that a substance abuse social worker should have. Although some recovering addicts do go on to become substance abuse social workers, most social workers have not been addicts themselves.
That means that a social worker will need to have empathy in order to understand how a patient who is recovering from a chemical dependency feels. Patience is also important as overcoming an addiction is a lifelong battle and many patients relapse before getting clean for the final time.
Besides experience working with substance abusers, clinical experience is also invaluable for anyone considering a career as a substance abuse social worker. It’s not uncommon for addicts to be dealing with mental health problems. A certified clinical social worker can make a diagnosis and offer counseling to treat mental health problems. They can also work with a substance abuse social worker to help create a better outcome for the patient.
What do substance abuse social workers do?
In a sentence: substance abuse social workers help a patient to put their life back together. By the time an addict ends up in a rehabilitation program, they typically have years of bad decisions behind them. For a substance abuse social worker, treating a patient isn’t just dealing with the drug addiction, it’s helping a patient to get their life in order.
Each day is different for a substance abuse social worker. The following are some of the most common tasks that a social worker may perform on a daily basis.
- Helping a patient to find housing and employment
- Leading counseling sessions. These sessions can be individual or group counseling
- Coordinating with other mental health professionals to diagnose mental illness
- Creating a recovery plan with the client, to help them stay clean once they return to their life
- Performing community outreach and offering services to those who want to get sober
- Offering ongoing support to a patient as they rebuild a new life that doesn’t involve drugs and alcohol
Substance abuse social worker job description
Substance abuse social workers are in high demand and they typically have a lot of choices in where they work. Here’s one job description, from a company called Arbour Counseling Services, that stands out as a particularly good place to work.
“This is the perfect job for folks who like to be busy, creative and offer innovative care to youth and families. Responsibilities are as follows: provide individual, family and group therapy sessions. Support clients through collaboration with other medical service providers, state agencies, other mental health services (including crisis services), and other community agencies and resources.”
Certificates or special training required for substance abuse social workers
As we’ve mentioned already, most substance abuse social workers should have a MSW or Ph.D. in social work. This is necessary so that a social worker can work unsupervised. In addition to the degree, some of the following items may also be necessary, depending on the employer.
- Proof of United States citizenship
- Random drug tests
- Proof of immunizations
- Basic life support certification, provided by either the American Red Cross or American Heart Association
- Background check
- Advanced social work licensure
- Substance abuse counselor certification (varies from state to state)
- Must be familiar with the DSM and have the ability to diagnose mental health conditions
Each employer is unique and the requirements will vary based on the position.
Outlook for substance abuse social workers
Social workers have lots of opportunities when it comes to finding a job. In fact, social work is one of the fastest growing job fields in the entire United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected a 13 percent job growth rate from 2019 to 2029 in the field of social work, well above the national average for job growth.
As of May 2019, there are 117,770 mental health and substance abuse social workers employed in the United States.
How much do substance abuse social workers make?
BLS data shows that the mean annual wage for a substance abuse social worker is $51,670, while those in the top 10th percentile make $80,900 per year.
There is a large discrepancy in wages between states. For example, the annual mean wage in California is $65,020 while the wage in Pennsylvania is just $38,710 per year. The highest wages typically go to social workers in large cities, although this is where the cost of living is typically the highest as well.