How to Become a Substance Abuse Social Worker – Career and Degree Guide [2024]

Substance Abuse Social Worker Career

Substance abuse social workers play a vital role in many fields as they help people find specialized solutions to their problems with substance abuse and addictions.

The research suggests that this is an ever present, growing problem and estimates that there are over 23.1 million Americans (roughly 8.9% of the population) that need to be treated for substance abuse related problems.

Of those, only 2.5 million (1%) received specialized treatment for their issues with substances. There is a huge disparity between those people that need skilled support and those that actually get it. Other research suggests that more than 23.5 million people in the U.S. refer having had problems in the past with substances and are in recovery.

While avoiding the substance is one of the most important parts of recovery, other factors must be taken into consideration for it to be balanced, long lived and allow the person to lead a fulfilling life. Substance abuse social workers can help people that want to stop using substances for good and also those people that are in recovery but have not yet quite put their lives back together.

Related: Substance Abuse Counselor Career Information

A substance abuse social worker can assess, diagnose and treat substance abuse problems, whether they are associated to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or any other substance a person can become dependent on.

Substance abuse social workers have the necessary tools to deal with these issues and give the person the right support at the personal, family and community level. They work in the prevention, treatment and recovery phases of substance abuse.

What Does a Substance Abuse Social Worker Do?

A social worker who specializes in substance abuse helps people by identifying their problem, assessing their needs and providing treatment in a variety of settings.

A substance abuse social worker may also recognize an individual at risk for becoming addicted to drugs, and recommend appropriate action. The substance abuse social worker educates clients, acts as a patient advocate, provides crisis intervention, manages cases and facilitates individual and group therapy. Patients volunteer for treatment or they may be mandated referrals, such as those referred by a probation officer.

A substance abuse social worker may also educate the public in community outreach centers, schools and recreation centers.

After conducting assessment interviews and evaluating patients, the social worker determines the level of treatment necessary. An individualized treatment plan is developed with input from the patient, and substance abuse treatment programs are evaluated. Some substance abuse social workers are part of a team that would review the proposed treatment program.

Once the program is implemented, the social worker reviews the patient’s progress on a regular basis. The treatment plan is modified periodically in order to reflect any change in the status of the patient. The treatment program may involve psychoeducation, therapy and group sessions for to prevent relapses.

Substance abuse social workers may help their clients stick to their treatment plan by providing support such as completing forms and arranging for transportation to and from appointments. Patients are counseled on dealing with a wide range of issues that may underlie the substance abuse problem, including unemployment, physical abuse in the home, economic poverty and physical or mental illness.

The social worker also acts as a liaison with other professionals including physicians, nurses and counselors for the benefit of patients.

Why Do We Need Substance Abuse Social Workers?

Substance abuse is a national problem. Substance abuse affects the individual, their families, spouses and friends, their community, and society as a whole. Substance abuse social workers have the important task of restoring people lost in addiction to sanity and sobriety, so they can become healthy, responsible family providers, good workers, and productive members of society.

A large number of untreated addicts in a community can result in stress on multiple interrelated social systems, produce economic problems, and urban decay. Social workers who specialize in this area save lives. If substance abusers do not receive proper treatment in a timely manner, their lives will become unmanageable.

Dealing with addicts and alcoholics takes a special type of dedication and commitment. It is not for everybody. Treating addicts and alcoholics requires a unique approach, and the treatment methods and theoretical perspectives vary significantly from other types of psychotherapy. The clinician must be firm, assertive, and confrontational, yet respectful and compassionate.

A lot of clinicians do not want to work with this population, but a shortage of clinicians in this area can mean long waiting lists for treatment.

During this wait time, which can be as long as 18 months, the addiction will progress. More physical, psychological, and financial harm will occur, family and associates will be stressed by the addicts behavior, work productivity will suffer, and people will lose motivation for entering treatment. Some addicts will overdose and die.

Where Does a Substance Abuse Social Worker Work?

Work environment for substance abuse social workers is closely linked to places where people are at the most risk to fall into substance abuse problems and where they can have the most influence in making a difference. They can work in schools, hospitals and mental health clinics.

A substance abuse social worker can also work in an inpatient detoxification unit and inpatient rehabilitation facility, an outpatient substance abuse clinic, a correctional facility, a juvenile detention facility, or a private office. They may be attached to a PCP (Primary Care Physician) office, or rotate among several PCP offices.

In addition to practice, they may also teach courses in social work, psychology, or substance abuse at a community college or a four year college. With a DSW (Doctor of Social Work) they may teach and conduct research at a university, or be involved as a consultant to government, advocating public policy or legal changes around substance abuse treatment, or those convicted of drug related crimes.

What are the Requirements to Become a Substance Abuse Social Worker?


First off, you need to have a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work or a similar field. In many of these programs you need to start with pre-social work studies, including introduction to the social sciences (psychology, sociology and social work), economics and natural sciences. Once these studies are completed you can focus on getting your Bachelor’s degree.

Social work programs at this level focus on developing the knowledge and experience of the social worker to understand the impact that society and the environment can have on the person, understand the structure of different cultures and the reasoning behind their behavior, and the sociopolitical state of the community you will be working in.

Having a bachelor’s degree in social work may get you an entry level job as a substance abuse social worker.

To practice substance abuse social work in its full capacity you need to have a master’s degree in clinical social work. While most clinical social workers will have some training in dealing with substance abuse, some choose to specialize in this work through specific Master’s programs that focus part of the training in this field. Some of the course requirements need to cover topics on pharmacology, substance abuse prevention, assessment and treatment.

At a Master’s degree level a student can expect to complete 60 credit hours to complete their program, although some programs are much less if you already have the Bachelor’s degree in Social Work.

A substance abuse social worker needs to have the training and experience to help people that are trying to avoid falling into substance abuse through prevention, people who are trying to quit the abuse of a substance through diverse treatment programs and also support people that are in recovery, giving them more resources to create the balance that they need in life.


In many Master’s programs there are specialized courses that focus solely on the management of substance abuse. Although this is not a pre-requisite for this field, it definitely is a plus in terms of the experience level attained as you finish schooling and field hours.

There are several certificate programs that specialize in substance abuse treatment, focusing the curriculum on intervention strategies, understanding the biological components of addictions and also the cultural/ethnic differences of substance abuse.

Licensing Requirements

Just like other social workers, especially clinical social workers, they need to complete their studies at an accredited CSWE school, as this creates a more direct path towards being licensed in most states. As with other social work programs, the field hours can vary, ranging from 900 hours to a couple of thousand.

To apply for a license you will first need to complete master’s level education and a period of supervised practice. You will also need to pass a licensing examination.

Licensing requirements vary by state. For more information about licensure board by state, visit the Association of Social Work Boards website.

What Personal Skills are Needed for a Substance Abuse Social Worker?

As with other types of social workers, substance abuse social workers need to have empathy, compassion and desire want to help others succeed. Some specific personal skills that they need are:

  • Intelligence
  • Decisiveness
  • Strong personality
  • Deeply caring for the well-being of others
  • Capable of facing conflict and adversity
  • Clear and decisive communication
  • Crisis Management
  • Kindness

What is the Salary of a Substance Abuse Social Worker?

Salaries for substance abuse social workers range from $34,000 to $97,300 a year, with the national median wage at $60,130, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2023.

Some of the highest paying positions are in ‘Specialty Hospitals’ ($81,870 median salary) and in ‘Offices of Health Practitioners’ ($72,840 median salary).

The state in the U.S. that has the highest pay average is New Jersey ($99,390 median salary), while the state that has the highest employment level of substance abuse social worker is California ($79,450 median salary).

What is the Job Outlook for Substance Abuse Social Workers?

As mentioned above, the field of work in accordance to the prevalence of the problem is huge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth in this field that will need more and more specialized social workers being able to provide effective strategies to curb the impact that substance abuse can have in individuals, groups and communities in general.

You may find great fulfillment in this career, knowing that you have the tools and skills to help people get over some of the most difficult experiences in their lives, feeling satisfied that every day you can change someone’s life for the better.

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