Six Reasons To Become a Substance Abuse Social Worker

Clinical social worker and therapist Troy Jackson, MSS, LSW, says there’s no more rewarding feeling than seeing a former client years later whose life has moved in a more positive direction.

Jackson often works with people with substance use disorders. He says, “The great feeling is when you see they get their lives back. They become good sons, good daughters; they can reunite with family. I’ll see them 5, 10 years later and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant, hey I have a new house, a new job.’ Whatever it is, you know you made an impact on their lives.”

Jackson has been working in various capacities as a counselor and social worker in the Philadelphia area over the past two decades. He says that when people are dependent on drugs and alcohol, they are unable to be contributing members of society, and they’re not present.

“When people dealing with substance use issues come back and become contributing members of society, it’s a big deal,” he says. 

Formerly referred to as “substance abuse,” the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes a substance use disorder (SUD) as a mental illness that involves the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs that leads to clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability and failure to meet major responsibilities in their day-to-day lives — at work, school or home. 

Jackson and other professionals in the field of substance use social work interact with people who live with not only addictions, but often with other related mental health conditions, called “co-occurring” disorders, according to SAMHSA. They include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others.

Pursuing a career in substance use social work serves a major need in our society. In recent years, increasingly more people are seeking clinical help to treat their substance use disorders or those of a loved one. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that the rate of people seeking treatment for illicit drug use disorders was at 9.2 percent in 2016. By 2017, that figure increased to 13 percent.

Below are some of the reasons to consider a career in this specialized field of social work.

1. Substance Abuse Is on the Rise

Why do we need substance use social workers? Substance use disorders are prevalent and people in need can benefit from professional support. SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that in 2017, approximately 18.7 million people age 18 or older had a substance use disorder in the United States. Of those with a substance use disorder, the report found that 3 in 8 people struggled with illicit drugs, 3 in 4 struggled with alcohol use, and 1 in every 9 people struggled with both illicit drugs and alcohol. Addiction can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people died from a drug overdose nationwide, a bleak statistic fueled by the country’s opioid epidemic. In 2017 alone, the number of deaths that resulted from opioids was six times higher than in 1999.Who needs a substance abuse social worker? People from all walks of life — substance use disorders affect all economic classes and all age groups across the US. Social workers are particularly helpful given how often substance use disorders and other mental health conditions overlap. The 2017 SAMHSA survey notes that 8.5 million Americans 18 years old and up had both a substance use disorder and a related mental health disorder.

Substance use can ruin lives and also affect the country at large. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that substance use and addiction to tobacco, illicit drugs and alcohol lead to more than $740 billion in annual costs.

2. A Rewarding Role

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines a substance use social worker’s role as one that directly addresses the needs of people suffering from addiction by looking at two issues: the big picture of how drugs and alcohol affect one’s life and the solution, coming up with an individualized treatment for that person. What does a substance use counselor do? They can provide a variety of services:

  • Helping those who have psychiatric and medical conditions that occur along with a substance use disorder to find resources for treatment
  • Addressing homelessness among individuals with substance use problems
  • Helping people deal with the justice system if they’ve experienced trouble with the law
  • Assisting people with repairing relationships and other problems, such as job loss, that can stem from addiction

Substance use social workers ensure that clients and their families and loved ones have access to the support services they need, NASW notes in their Standards for Social Work Practice. This means that if you enter this field, you will be trained in the court decisions, regulations and rules that center on the complexities that can arise from addiction. One way to view this type of social work is as advocacy for people and families going through a difficult time, Jackson says. He is mindful of the struggles his clients are going through and that it requires patience and understanding.

“Don’t give up hope. You have to remember that the person you are working with is suffering; the person is in pain. You are there to help them get their life back,” he says.

“These are people who are using drugs and alcohol to help relieve that pain. Meet them where they are, and listen to them,” he adds.

3. A Variety of Work Environments

Social workers help those struggling with addiction in many different settings:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Schools
  • Nonprofit and local advocacy organizations
  • Courts
  • Police departments

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018, the biggest employer of mental health and substance abuse social workers was outpatient care centers, which employed 25,860 social workers. Individual and family services came in second, employing 16,940 social workers in this field, and local governments (not including schools and hospitals) employed 14,720 professionals in this specialty field of social work.

4. Professional Growth Opportunities

What’s the potential for growth for substance use social workers? There is great potential for growth in this specialty area, according to the NASW. Substance use social workers can take on roles as leaders and consultants. Many work in the mental health field to provide training and education to individuals and allies, developing programs that can address and treat addiction.

Cities in the United States with the highest levels of employment include New York, Los Angeles and Boston, according to the BLS.

Salary — What To Expect

A mental health counselor and substance abuse social worker’s salary stands at a mean hourly wage of $23.86 and a mean annual wage of $49,630, according to the BLS.

Those with the most experience can earn significantly more. Substance use counselors in the 90th percentile earn up to $78,910 annually. Insurance carriers, colleges and universities, and general medical and surgical hospitals offer the highest average annual incomes between $58,000 and $66,000.

5. A Job With Autonomy

With a master’s degree and clinical licensure, social workers in this specialty area are trained to work in jobs that offer professional independence. The online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California prepares students for licensure and helps those who are already licensed to utilize a rich set of skills required to work in their communities. It is also a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) certified program.

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) has established various credential levels for people pursuing this specialty, including certifications for social workers who have clients dealing with nicotine dependence, those who work with adolescents and for professionals who are peer recovery support specialists. These credentials are not required to become a substance abuse social worker, though, and go above and beyond what’s needed to practice. They can, however, add to a person’s knowledge and ability to work independently.

6. Professional Collaboration

Substance use social workers also benefit from teamwork and the guidance of colleagues and mentors in the field. Looking back on his own career, Jackson says collaborating with other social workers has been a key part of his job.

He says working with other therapists, asking questions, and building a team that helps support him with his clients has been pivotal.

“It’s really rewarding to work together and see people get better. Their whole world can be in shambles, and then to see it all come back — that’s amazing. It’s just amazing,” Jackson says.

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.