Become an Addictions or Substance Abuse Social Worker

For people who find themselves face-to-face with substance abuse or addiction, one of the best — and first — paths forward involves reaching out for help. Substance abuse social workers can offer that help.

Most social workers provide community resources and guidance to communities affected by substance abuse disorders. Howeverno, a substance abuse social worker specializes in helping those struggling with addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Social workers can either work in a clinical or nonclinical capacity; only clinical workers can provide counseling services.

Social workers earn a median annual income of about $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Read on to learn more about substance abuse social worker salaries and careers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it hard to become a substance abuse social worker?

    That depends on your perspective. Individuals certainly need discipline, a good work ethic, and good problem-solving and communication skills in order to become substance abuse workers. It is not an easy career, but over 100,000 mental health and substance abuse workers work in the United States.

  • Where do substance abuse social workers work?

    These professionals work in many different settings. They find jobs at outpatient care centers, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, individual and family services, and community food and housing services. Many work at residential facilities, and specifically mental health and substance abuse facilities.

  • How long does it take to become a substance abuse social worker?

    Aspiring substance abuse social workers need a bachelor's degree. These programs take about four years to complete for full-time learners. However, substance abuse social workers can also gain clinical standing if they wish to offer counseling services. In this case, they usually add a master's degree through an additional two years of education.

  • Is a substance abuse social worker a mandated reporter?

    All substance abuse social workers are mandated reporters. In other words, if they suspect that parents neglect or abuse their children — sometimes because of substance abuse or addiction — then social workers must report their suspicion to the police. Other professionals, such as school counselors and teachers, also hold the mandated reporter designation.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Substance Abuse Social Worker

Substance abuse social workers guide people with drug and alcohol addictions or other problems. They connect clients with resources and support groups for their recovery. Clinical substance abuse social workers can actually diagnose patients and provide counseling services through 12-step programs and other treatments.

These professionals work in many different settings. Some work in community centers and healthcare facilities, like psychiatric hospitals. These days, the federal government increasingly emphasizes harm reduction through social work. As a result, substance abuse social workers frequently work in the criminal justice system. These professionals help drug or alcohol offenders who have been referred to treatment instead of jail. For many of these positions, substance abuse social workers need clinical licensure.

Substance abuse social workers help people overcome a rather challenging part of their lives. However, like any profession that works with high-risk populations, the job can be deeply stressful but also incredibly rewarding.

Top Paying Industries for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Insurance carriers ranked as the top-paying industry for these professionals, even though only a small percentage (about 0.2%) of substance abuse social workers find employment in this industry. The annual mean income for this industry is about $68,650 per year, according to the BLS.

Other top-paying industries include ambulatory healthcare services, colleges, and universities, with mean wages of about $64,000. In addition, substance abuse social workers employed at other health practitioners earn an average income of about $61,250.

Top Paying States for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Location can considerably impact salaries for any profession. For instance, substance abuse social workers earn the highest average salaries in New Jersey. The mean annual wage for these professionals in the states reached about $83,050 — about $17,000 more than Washington, D.C., the second best-paying area, according to the BLS.

California, Connecticut, and New York also pay substance abuse social workers well, with annual wages ranging from $63,520-$65,020.

The states with the greatest concentrations of substance abuse social workers include Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In these states, substance abuse social workers can expect salaries ranging from $38,000-$60,000.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Salaries can even vary substantially even within states. In general, metropolitan areas tend to come with higher pay than rural areas because of a general higher living costs.

The three highest-paid metropolitan areas for substance abuse are all in California. Professionals in the Vallejo-Fairfield area make an annual mean wage of $96,730, while those in Santa Rosa and Napa make about $85,000 per year, according to the BLS. Substance abuse social workers in Trenton, New Jersey, also make salaries over $80,000, with the mean pay amounting to $83,310.

The metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of employment for substance abuse social workers include Altoona, Pennsylvania; Pueblo, Colorado; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Professionals in these cities earn mean salaries ranging from $29,000-$44,000.

Salary and Job Growth for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Overall, substance abuse social workers can expect a growing employment outlook over the next decade. The BLS projects the number of social workers overall may increase by 90,000 from 2019-29 — a growth of about 13%, much faster than average.

In addition, the BLS projects the number of mental health and substance abuse social workers may grow 17% in that same time period.

The BLS attributes this projected growth to an increased number of treatment programs for alcohol abuse and addiction. Especially when it comes to drug offenses, the justice system increasingly sends offenders to treatment programs instead of jails. Many substance abuse social workers find employment at these treatment centers.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Social Worker

Aspiring substance abuse social workers can follow a couple of different pathways. First, they can earn a bachelor of social work (BSW) and then directly enter the profession. These programs generally last four years for full-time students.

Many states require social workers with a BSW to earn licensure, although requirements vary. Usually substance abuse social workers need to complete a certain number of supervised work hours, often during their BSW.

Alternatively, substance abuse social workers who want to work at the clinical level must also complete a master of social work (MSW). This postgraduate degree typically adds an extra two years to aspiring social workers' education. Sometimes graduate programs allow students to finish in one year if they already possess a BSW. Degree-seekers should expect to take 5-6 years to earn their degree, depending on their educational background. These professionals must also earn clinical licensure in every state, and obtaining professional certification can also boost their credentials.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Most substance abuse social workers need licensure in order to legally work. All clinical social workers must be licensed, but the licensure requirements for nonclinical social workers vary by state. To earn nonclinical licensure, candidates need a bachelor's degree and supervised work experience. Clinical licensure requires a master's degree, supervised work experience, and a passing score on a clinical exam.

Social workers do not need certification to legally practice. However, certification from a professional association can add to their credibility and help them land employment. To earn the certified clinical alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs credential, substance abuse social workers need an MSW and at least two years of post-clinical experience.

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