The Role of Social Workers in Treating Substance Use Disorder

substance abuse social worker meets patientDo stressful circumstances lead to substance abuse, or does substance use cause unfortunate circumstances? In the eyes of a social worker, the answer doesn’t matter. As social workers support clients from vulnerable populations, such as unhoused people, people with mental health disorders, and lower-income individuals and families, they may frequently find themselves working with individuals who are battling substance use disorders (SUDs). The consequences for these people, their loved ones and their communities are often severe.

Thankfully, the cultural framing of SUDs are changing from one of criminalization and fear to one of understanding. Rather than viewing substance use solely as criminal behavior, the public is starting to understand it as a complex health issue. Mental illness is particularly correlated with substance use disorder, as shown by research indicating that an estimated one in four people with a serious mental illness is also dealing with an SUD. Factors like mental illness and outdated support systems still make it difficult for people with substance use disorders to access effective treatment, but more local and state governments are developing policies and earmarking funding to support substance misuse treatment.

In New York, nearly $200 million in funds from settlement agreements with opioid manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies are being directed to programs that support addiction prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery.
—New York State Government

With greater access to evidence-based treatments, harm reduction strategies and funding for education and treatment programs, social workers can effectively serve as a primary service provider to clients with substance use disorders. There are a variety of methods that social workers can use to support clients on an individual, group and community basis.

Eight Ways Social Workers Aid Individuals With Substance Use Disorders

    1. Assessment and Screening

    Addiction results from the complex intersection of psychological, medical, social, cultural and economic factors unique to each individual. Social workers need to understand the unique dynamics affecting their clients, as well as the nature of their particular disorder(s), to screen them for substance use disorders and evaluate their treatment needs. This can require understanding what substances they use, in what ways and how often; medical history, including history of mental illness or trauma; and potential triggers for substance misuse. Careful assessment and screening can help identify a method of treatment with a high likelihood of success.

    2. Treatment Planning

    Treatment planning can include therapy or psychiatric services, medications, in-patient rehabilitation programs or a combination of services. Due to the administrative fragmentation of such services, social workers must research, navigate and evaluate various options offered by public agencies, nonprofits and healthcare systems. They may also need to collaborate on treatment plans and delivery with healthcare providers, human services professionals and specialists. Social workers may also be involved in designing and managing larger programs to address substance use disorder.

    3. Counseling and Therapy

    Qualified social workers are authorized to offer therapeutic services directly. Such services can include one-to-one therapy, group options such as 12-step programs or family-based counseling.

    4. Case Management

    Social workers need to keep track of their clients’ treatment schedules and requirements, including drug tests and check-ins. They may also need to help clients set up counseling appointments, arrange for transportation and share progress and evaluation updates with other treatment team members.

    5. Advocacy

    Social workers advocate for their clients’ needs by helping them make decisions about their treatment, ensuring clients understand their rights and serving as a source of support and assistance. Advocacy in social work can also involve supporting and promoting policies and legislation that enhance and expand harm-reduction measures and affordable treatment for substance use disorders.

    6. Family Support

    Social workers often work with clients’ loved ones as they guide their client through substance abuse treatment. This can include offering or directing friends and family toward counseling services, educating them about addiction and providing information about how best to support the client during and after treatment.

    7. Crisis Intervention

    Social workers must know how to secure medical or therapeutic services for clients facing a crisis related to their substance use, such as emergency hospitalization or admission to a rehab facility. They may also help educate the public on how to assist people with substance use emergencies, such as facilitating workshops about the proper administration of Narcan.

    8. Continuing Education

    Keeping up to date with new information about SUDs—including new theories on causes and treatments, as well as emerging frameworks and best practices for service delivery—allows social workers to provide the best services for their clients and increases the likelihood of successful treatment. Continuous education helps ensure that social workers are providing the most recent and proven strategies for substance use disorder treatment.

Preparing to Address Substance Use Disorders in Social Work

Adelphi University’s Master of Social Work curriculum is designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge to support clients with SUDs. Classes like SWK 710: Social Work Assessment and Diagnosis help students understand the relationship of mental illness to substance misuse. Students will also develop a comprehensive perspective of mental health, informed by historical, cultural, racial and socioeconomic factors.

Becoming a social worker is one way you can help address the ongoing crisis of substance use disorder. From treatment to intervention to education, your efforts can make a big difference in individual lives and society as a whole.

About Adelphi’s On-Campus and Online MSW

The highly respected School of Social Work at Adelphi has a long history of producing leaders in social work and helping to shape social policies. Since 1951, we have continually been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and Adelphi’s Social Work graduate program is now ranked in the top 25% of the country, according to US News & World Report. Additionally, our faculty members are expert practitioners and researchers, having published across the full range of topics within the field—including disparities in healthcare, child advocacy, the role of social workers in shaping policies and more.

Our Online Master of Social Work program brings the combined decades of expertise and legacy of Adelphi’s leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. While the program is primarily delivered online, we include two annual, required on-campus experiences due to the importance of building relationships in the social work field. Many students tell us that the on-campus training and practicum work is a highlight of their education.

Along with the normal track, we also have an Advanced Standing option of our MSW program specifically designed for students who graduated from an accredited BSW program in the last five years. In this alternative, professionals have the opportunity to earn an MSW part-time in just 15 months.

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