Substance Abuse Social Worker Career Outlook

An assortment of pills.









Substance abuse social workers play an essential role by helping individuals facing addictions recover and by supporting community advocacy programs that reduce the portion of the population abusing substances. This is a complex and demanding branch of social work. It’s also one that’s necessary as the U.S. faces numerous challenges regarding drug and alcohol consumption. According to a 2019 report issued by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 9.5 million Americans 18 and over have both a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness of some kind. The work of substance abuse social workers can play a vital role in helping this vulnerable segment of society cope and overcome their challenges.

A Day in the Life of a Substance Abuse Worker

Social workers can play a crucial role in helping people with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues. Because their work can help people overcome challenges of substance abuse or mental health issues, social workers involved in the sector can serve as counselors.

The duties associated with a substance abuse social worker role typically involve diagnosing mental health conditions, providing or advocating for integrated dual disorders treatment, and ensuring a long-term chain of care. In many cases, pharmacological solutions for mental health issues can lead to a rapid stabilization of patients, but it’s up to social workers to provide the counseling and ongoing support to help individuals cope with their challenges and sustain long-term intervention as needed.

Due to the nature of social work, there’s no typical day for substance abuse social workers. They may perform a range of duties on a daily basis, such as holding sessions and developing treatment strategies with clients in a caseload. Substance abuse social workers may also respond to emergency situations that directly correlate to a client’s substance abuse or mental health issue. As such, it’s important for substance abuse social workers to be flexible to effectively respond.

Substance Abuse Social Requirements and Work Environment

Substance abuse social workers typically must possess at least a master’s in social work or an advanced degree related to the field, as state licensure bodies almost exclusively require individuals to hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) or comparable degree when becoming a licensed counselor.

Because counseling is such a major component of this job, it isn’t surprising that outpatient care centers are the most prominent location for mental health and substance abuse social worker jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 27,790 social workers are employed in outpatient care centers, making it the single most prominent destination for professionals in the sector. Individual and family services centers are the second most common work location, with 16,320 social work professionals employed in such settings. Other prominent work locales for mental health and substance abuse social workers include the following:

  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals

Substance Abuse Social Worker Salary

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers was $48,720 as of May 2020. The BLS also reports that the top 10% of earners brought in $87,420. The precise salary an individual may receive may be influenced by numerous factors, including the individual’s education level and years of experience in the field.

Job location can also influence the salary that a substance abuse social worker may receive. According to the BLS, social workers in certain states and regions earned a higher median annual salary than others. The top-paying state for the profession was New Jersey, where substance abuse social workers earned a annual mean wage of $91,070, followed by the District of Columbia, $73,490; California, $73,150; Connecticut, $66,500; and Rhode Island, $65,430.

Key Crises Facing Substance Abuse Social Workers

Substance abuse social workers provide guidance and treatment strategies to those dealing with various forms of substance abuse. While the substances in question are part of a broad classification, two specific categories tend to generate particular attention within the field: opioids and alcohol.

The Opioid Crisis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) performed a major study of deaths related to drug use in the U.S., tracking statistics from 1999 to 2019. The results pointed to a widespread and large-scale opioid problem that impacts a significant portion of the country. Nearly 841,000 people died as a result of a drug overdose during this time period. Of those deaths, 70.6% involved the use of an opioid.

According to the study, the number of deaths associated with natural and semisynthetic opioids has increased gradually from 1999 to 2019. This coincides with the beginning of a rise in deaths related to prescription drug overdoses. Deaths related to heroin overdoses increased sharply from 2010 to 2019, and deaths from synthetic opioids rose even faster. In 2013, synthetic opioids significantly trailed heroin and natural opioids in the number of deaths. By 2016, synthetic opioids became much more prevalent in overdose deaths than the others, a pattern that still continues.

All told, the number of overdose deaths associated with opioids quadrupled between 1999 and 2019.

Alcohol Abuse

Tracking alcohol abuse across the entire population is challenging, but identifying and monitoring signs of alcohol abuse is more feasible. One of those signs is binge drinking. While this practice isn’t as deadly as opioid use, it’s much more widespread. The CDC found that approximately 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drink four times per month. According to 2019 data derived from the SAMHSA, 4.9% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 binge drink, and this jumps to 34.3% among young adults ages 18 to 25. While these numbers do represent a decline from previous years, they’re still large enough to indicate a significant issue.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Social Worker

There are many reasons to want to work with those working through substance abuse challenges. Whether you want to help with the macro issues facing the nation or are drawn to the profession due to more personal experiences, or perhaps a bit of both, developing skills in clinical social work is essential. The online MSW program at Regis College specializes in clinical social work, with our curriculum focused on preparing students to work as counselors and emphasizing evidence-based care models.

Our program is designed for flexibility. It features:

  • Three start times, so you can kick off your MSW studies without too long a wait
  • Provisions for students to carry transfer credits into the program
  • An application process that doesn’t require the GRE
  • A flexible schedule that lets you complete your coursework in as few as eight semesters

Learn more about how the  online Master of Social Work at Regis College can help you prepare for a career in substance abuse social work.

Recommended Readings

MPH vs. MSW: Which Career Is Right for Me?

MSW or Criminal Justice: Which Degree If You Want to Work in Corrections?

What Is an MSW and What Can I Do With It?


American Addiction Centers, “Social Workers and Their Role in Addiction Treatment”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Binge Drinking

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Overdose Deaths

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding the Epidemic

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Key Substance Abuse and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers