Are you interested in a career as an addiction social worker? This field is ideal for individuals who want to offer mental health services to patients who are struggling with substance abuse and/or addiction. The job of addiction social workers is very multifaceted, but they are often trained and certified to assess the condition of their patients, identify possible reasons for the addiction, recognize potential triggers for further abuse, and develop individualized treatment plans designed to meet goals and promote a substance-free lifestyle.


The prevalence of addiction in the United States may surprise you. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 22.7 million people in America required specialized treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2013. The survey, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), looked specifically at the rate of use and dependence among citizens who were 12 years of age and older. While SAMHSA’s survey does show that the use and abuse of substances other than marijuana has declined slightly since 2007, addiction continues to be a significant and widespread issue in the nation.

The impact of addiction is also substantial. It isn’t only the individual with the condition and his or her family who are impacted; substance abuse takes a toll on all of society. When factoring in an increase in crime, the cost of incarceration, a decrease in economic productivity, and the amount spent on healthcare, the United States spends over $600 billion annually.

What Do Addiction Social Workers Do?


With nearly nine percent of the United States population struggling with some form of substance abuse, social workers specializing in addiction play an extremely important role in today’s society. Ideal candidates for these positions should have a very strong interest in both counseling services and behavioral sciences. In addition, substance abuse counselors must have a firm understanding of human ethics and be strongly dedicated to helping others.

Day in the Life of an Addiction Social Worker

The responsibilities of addiction social workers are extremely varied and they must often complete a number of different tasks on a daily basis. While every position is a little different, some of the most common duties include:

  • Identifying individuals who exhibit risk factors often associated with addiction and recommending action
  • Assessing patients in order to determine the type of addiction they should be diagnosed with, as well as its severity and potential causes
  • Managing patient cases by accurately and thoroughly documenting treatment details
  • Consulting with other mental health and medical professionals, like therapists, doctors, and nurses, as necessary
  • Creating individualized treatment plans that are designed to target a patient’s specific addiction and lifestyle
  • Identifying potential triggers that may contribute to continued substance abuse and recommending methods of avoiding them
  • Providing crisis intervention to patients who are at a risk of relapsing due to a traumatic event
  • Facilitating individual and group counseling sessions that incorporate various therapy techniques
  • Assisting patients in setting and reaching treatment and recovery goals, as well as instituting coping mechanisms to help avoid relapse
  • Monitoring patient progress in order to gauge treatment success so any appropriate modifications can be made
  • Encouraging positive behaviors that will help patients establish and maintain a substance-free lifestyle
  • Advocating for patient rights, recovery, and privacy
  • Providing addiction education to patients, as well as community members through schools, outreach centers, and recreation centers

Substance abuse social workers also have a clear understanding of what addiction really is: a disease. They know, for example, that a person does not choose to become addicted to a substance or behavior. Addiction doesn’t result because of a lack of willpower or a poor sense of right and wrong. It’s an indiscriminant, chronic, relapsing brain disease that results in an overwhelming craving for, and inability to regulate indulgence in, a particular substance or behavior. Over time, the brain of an addict actually changes. Professionals specializing in substance abuse understand that changing it back can’t happen overnight, no matter how much a person may want it to.

Although drugs and alcohol make up a significant portion of the country’s substance abuse problem, there are many other types of addiction. People are capable of becoming addicted to materials and/or behaviors, both of which a substance abuse counselor must learn to recognize and treat. Some of the most common substances and activities than can result in compulsive behavior and dependency are:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Illegal Drugs
  • Prescription Drugs
  • Food
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Shopping
  • Theft
  • Video Games
  • Work

While substance abuse may be their primary concentration, addiction social workers are typically extensively trained in pharmacology, individual counseling, and group counseling techniques. This is, in large part, due to the fact that many substance abuse disorders go hand-in-hand with mental disorders. In fact, a significant portion of those diagnosed with addiction are also diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

Integrated Treatment Models and Social Workers

According to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014, roughly 43.6 million Americans age 18 years and older were diagnosed with a mental disorder and about 20.2 million others were diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Of these, nearly 7.9 million were found to suffer from co-occurring disorders. Research has shown that integrated treatment models are most successful when working with dual diagnosis patients. To ensure the best possible chance of recovery and/or symptom maintenance in these cases, it’s absolutely imperative that addiction social workers have the skills necessary to accurately identify and address both conditions simultaneously.

Working as an addiction social worker isn’t always an easy profession. In fact, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) projects that the prevalence of social workers will decrease by two percent before the year 2025. Attrition, likely due to a difficult and emotionally charged work environment, will outpace the addition of newly trained professionals in the field. Those best-suited to become an addiction social worker can generally:

  • Handle large amounts of stress well
  • Possess exceptional communication skills
  • Think quickly and under pressure
  • Feel deeply compassionate for others
  • Be willing and able to work with limited resources
  • Avoid making judgments
  • Have the ability to take charge during a crisis
  • Demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity
  • Know how to mitigate potential crises
  • See other people’s potential
  • Effectively calm distressed or agitated patients
  • Adjust quickly to ever-changing situations

What is a Master of Social Work (MSW)?


While some positions only require a bachelor’s degree, going through a master of social work (MSW) program with specialization in addiction is ideal if you want to gain a more thorough understanding of the field. In addition to more professional opportunities, you’re also likely to receive higher pay. Further, completing a MSW program is generally recommended if you plan to apply for certification in your state. Not every location requires education of this level, but a significant number of states will not permit you practice without a master’s degree. Be sure to check your state’s specific certification requirements and process before selecting a master of social work program.

Benefits of an MSW with specialization in addiction include

  • Better understanding of the science behind addiction and how it impacts patients
  • More extensive training on useful counseling techniques
  • Access to more and higher paying jobs
  • Ability to qualify for certification easily between states
  • Career advancement opportunities, especially in addiction-related positions
  • Opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in the lives of others

Every MSW program is different, but most consist of 30 to 60 credit hours. A bachelor’s degree in a related field is often necessary for admittance and completion time is usually around two years. This can take longer, however, if additional prerequisite courses must be taken prior to beginning the program. “Fast track” options may also be available for candidates with extensive professional experience. Some of the most common course content includes:

  • History, Philosophy, and Theory of Social Work
  • Human Behavior
  • Analysis of Social Service Policy
  • Human Diversity and Social Justice
  • Clinical Practice with Families
  • Clinical Practice with Groups
  • Ethics
  • Substance Abuse Prevention
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Medical Aspects of Chemical Dependency
  • Addictions and Treatment Delivery
  • Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders

Picking the right MSW program is important, especially if you plan to pursue certification in your state. It’s best not to rush the decision as you consider your options. Make sure you carefully research factors like cost, completion timeframe, course selection, and required prerequisites. A program’s accreditation status is also important, as it can greatly impact your ability to transfer credits in the future. Some states do not recognize institutions that are not properly accredited, so it’s absolutely imperative you become familiar with the certification requirements where you live before selecting an MSW program.

Job Prospects


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, mental health and substance abuse social workers can expect to see employment growth of 19 percent before the year 2026. Compared to other occupations, this average rate of employment growth is much faster. This is likely due to projections that indicate an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for substance abuse and mental disorders. Additionally, it’s becoming more and more common for drug offenders to be provided with addiction treatment services instead of being sent to prison. This isn’t only more effective at decreasing substance abuse, it’s also more cost efficient. As many of these addiction programs are staffed by social workers, an increase in employment demand is expected.

It’s also important to note that of the 22.7 million Americans that should be receiving treatment for addiction, only about 2.5 million of them actually get it. The number of individuals left untreated is staggering and, in part, due to a lack of available and qualified social workers.

Need for Addiction Social Workers

Additionally, the HRSA projects that there will soon be a greater need for social workers specializing in substance abuse. Their findings indicate there will be a 14 percent increase in demand for these services by the year 2025. HRSA’s report also predicts that there will be two percent fewer mental health and substance abuse social workers by that same year. Within just a few short years, the demand for addiction services will likely exceed the supply of qualified healthcare professionals, resulting in a deficit within the field.

All of these factors indicate that pursuing a career as an addiction social worker is a wise decision. There are likely to be many good job opportunities within the field, especially in the coming years. While many industries employ social workers specializing in substance abuse, some of the most common employers are:

  • Hospitals
  • Mental Health Centers
  • Halfway Houses
  • Emergency Relief Services
  • Child Welfare Agencies
  • Human Service Agencies
  • Community Development Corporations
  • Detox Centers
  • Schools
  • Colleges and Universities
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Substance Abuse Facilities
  • Residential Treatment Centers
  • Outpatient Treatment Centers
  • Private Practices
  • Prisons
  • Probation and Parole Agencies
  • Juvenile Detention Facilities

Salary Outlook


The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reported that social workers made a median wage of $23.07 per hour, or a median salary of $47,980 in 2017. Mental health and substance abuse social workers, however, tended to fall a little short of this number, with a reported median salary of $43,250. The bottom 10 percent of those working within the field made less than $29,560, whereas those in the upper 10 percent had earnings around $79,740.

It’s important to realize that salaries vary drastically depending on experience, location, and job setting. There are a number of different industries that utilize social workers, including hospitals, ambulatory service providers, the government, and individual and family service providers. Of these, hospitals at the state, local, and private level were the highest paying. Social workers in this industry received a median annual wage of $58,490. Local government was the second highest paying industry, with a median salary of $52,900. The lowest paying industry, individual and family services, only provided a median wage of $40,800.

It’s worth noting that individual and family services accounts for the largest percentage of social worker employment. This industry employs 18 percent of social workers, whereas hospitals employ only 12 percent of professionals in the field.

Pay is also heavily dependent upon location. The states with the highest annual mean wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers in 2017 were:

  • Washington
  • California
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • Maine
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware
  • Virginia

On the other hand, the states that paid mental health and substance abuse social workers the least included:

  • Montana
  • South Dakota
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Missouri
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Alabama
  • South Carolina

Work Environment


Because there are so many potential social worker employers, individuals in this profession tend to work in a wide variety of settings. While most will have, and commonly work in, an office, it’s not uncommon for social workers to travel to meet with patients. School social workers, in particular, may have to split their time between a number of different schools within a district. In some cases, however, counseling services are administered remotely using videoconferencing or mobile technology.

Most social workers hold full time positions that require evening, weekend, and holiday hours. As client crises can occur at any time, they are often on call and must be available to address problems when they arise. Taking on larger caseloads due to understaffing often results in less personal time, which can become particularly stressful.