The role of social workers in treating drug addiction

A social worker’s role is to offer support to individuals, groups and communities by helping them address their daily challenges and find better ways to handle them. Often, social workers become the silent members of a family, mentors, or even life coaches as they intervene during the crisis and connect individuals to professional help. Therefore, they can also play a significant role in treating drug addiction.

Social workers will often work beyond standard working hours, at night, or even on weekends. They dedicate their lives to serving the community by helping people restore their mental and physical health. What do social workers do, and how can they help those with drug addictions?

Social worker duties

The daily duties and responsibilities will vary for each social worker, but their main functions are listed below.

Administration and management

Administration in social work is about creating organizational policies, coordinating finances and providing leadership to the organization, while management entails implementing the policies set at the administrative level and supervising processes and staff. While administrative activities are focused on decision-making, management breaks down the execution process into various components, including organizing and planning, coordinating, commanding and controlling activities.

International social work

International social work encompasses social problems affecting people around the world, with increased attention on matters such as human rights and migration. International social workers provide direct services to various communities while supporting national governments and intergovernmental organizations in promoting social well-being. They work in various environments, including orphanages, refugee camps, hospitals and schools.

Advocacy and community organization

Advocacy involves championing the rights of a community and lobbying for support to generate power through numbers. The role of these social workers is to examine the importance of advocacy on behalf of communities and organizations and organize them into pursuing the assertion of their right to justice, resources or equitable treatment.

Child welfare

Child welfare social workers focus on providing children with safe, loving and healthy environments. Every child deserves stability, and these social workers step in to build on the strengths of families, young people, and children. When families cannot provide appropriate standards, they intervene and protect children who are in unsafe living environments. Child welfare social workers also work with families on reunification plans in conjunction with child dependency courts. They help parents meet the needs of their families by connecting them with useful resources such as therapy. They also arrange for short-term and long-term housing for children in unsafe homes.


Geriatric social workers focus on promoting the quality of life for elderly patients. They specialize in handling seniors’ problems, including financial instability, depression, anxiety, dementia and various emotional challenges. The main objective of geriatric social workers is to help older people in the community to live as independently as possible and inspire them to want to remain an active part of society.

Justice and corrections

The role of a justice and corrections social worker entails supporting their clients by helping them seek mental health treatment and connecting them to resources such as job skills training so they can achieve financial stability. They also provide family support services. Justice and corrections social workers often deal with sensitive cases, including rape, child abuse and incest. They may work in the court system, police departments, rape crisis centers, and other correctional facilities.

Developmental disabilities

Developmental disability social workers are healthcare workers who support families dealing with developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other conditions. They offer assistance to new parents who need emotional and physical support in managing daily activities.

Occupational and employee assistance

Occupational and employee assistance social workers facilitate programs to help organizations recreate their structures and methods to suit their staff. This branch of social work focuses on improving working conditions by rethinking policies or methods that may affect efficiency, productivity, creativity and morale.

Public welfare

Social work in public welfare integrates various activities to support individuals and families in obtaining financial assistance. It entails planning, training, supervising and developing standards for service delivery. Public welfare social workers identify individuals in need in society, especially those who have been shunned by other institutions based on their income. They connect the vulnerable to various tax-supported programs that can help them improve their financial position.

Mental health and clinical social work

Clinical social workers make up around 33% of the overall social workers’ population. Their job is to assess, diagnose, treat and prevent mental illness and help clients deal with emotional and behavioral disturbances.

Mental health and substance abuse

This type of social work focuses on helping individuals and families recover from the physical, financial, and psychological effects of substance abuse. They are trained to treat various drug addictions and promote mental health wellness through therapy, family counseling and advocacy. Mental health and substance abuse social workers participate in policy making, community resource development, and lobbying for education, jobs and housing needs.

The role of social workers in treating drug and substance abuse

Social work encompasses a broad spectrum of activities designed and implemented to promote the well-being of individuals, families and communities. While every social worker is trained to support all types of clients, a special category of clinicians focuses on mental health and substance abuse.

Social workers wear different hats for mental health and substance use disorders depending on the circumstances or situation. Most people think of them as therapists, but they do so much more than that. These professionals invest time, effort, emotions and resources in catering to their clients in office settings, schools and homes. In some cases, mental health and substance abuse social workers may take the stand in courtrooms as expert witnesses.

Looking back at the history of social work, it was first recognized as a career in the 19th century to cater to the needs of vulnerable people, such as immigrants. The social worker’s main purpose was to fight for civil rights and equality to help affected people access resources, develop skills and elevate themselves out of poverty.

The profession has evolved to cater to the rising challenges of the modern age, including mental health and substance abuse issues. They play a significant role in supporting addiction treatment. Here is a look at some of the major responsibilities of social workers in treating drug addiction.

Addiction assessment

The term “assessment” refers to evaluating the nature of a problem, determining the diagnosis, and creating treatment plans or recommendations that can help remedy the situation. A substance use disorder social worker is specially trained to identify the needs and assess the conditions of their clients without bias. They can learn these skills by earning a Master of Social Work degree through programs like the one offered by Florida State University.

Typically, the first step a social worker will take when they begin working with someone, whether it’s in a school, hospital, or any other type of facility, is performing a comprehensive review of the client. They will carefully consider the extent of alcohol and substance abuse. However, some clients may be resistant to this assessment and may not provide much insight. Social workers are trained to create professional relationships with clients to promote understanding and enable them to identify patterns that may hinder or promote the success of the treatment.

The assessment process can be divided into various subcategories, including planning, intervention, and the evaluation of progress. Throughout this process, social workers rely on numerous tools to help them keep track of their clients’ progress. These tools also help them gather information about their clients’ needs.

Here is an overview of some of the most essential visual assessment tools for the social work profession:

  • Ecomaps – These are used to visualize the quality of personal and social relationships of families and their external world.
  • Culturagram – This diagram is used to examine various factors that may impact a client’s situation or progress. These factors include health beliefs, family values, education and work values, along with instances of oppression, trauma, racism, bias or any other crisis events. It also looks at the client’s contact with the community.
  • Self-assessment template – This tool allows the social worker to explore various aspects of their client’s life, including their personal and financial responsibilities, skills, needs, motivations, goals and priorities. The self-assessment tests are very quick, straightforward and interactive.
  • SWOT analysis – This is a self-assessment tool that helps the client identify their weaknesses, strengths, threats and opportunities.

Substance abuse counseling

Social workers often have to serve as therapists or substance abuse counselors in various settings. While most social work graduate programs include mental health education, some social workers choose to advance their careers by pursuing drug and substance abuse counseling certifications. This equips them with the knowledge they need to handle different types of clients.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers use a combination of treatments and support to help their clients break free from addiction. Much of their focus is on empowering the client to become mentally and emotionally independent as they work toward physically avoiding drugs and alcohol.

Substance abuse education and outreach

Social workers can also serve as educators in various settings such as shelters, schools, places of worship and community outreach centers. They can spread awareness and give professional views in conversations about alcohol and substance abuse. Their services are essential in treatment centers as they can assist individual patients and connect them with beneficial resources such as jobs, shelter or other ways of obtaining basic needs.

Intervene during a crisis

Most social workers are their client’s go-to person in the wake of a crisis. They provide crisis support by telephone and in person. They also get referrals for individuals who require emergency assistance. When drugs and alcohol are involved, the social worker may serve as a therapist. Their intervention usually includes evaluating the patient’s emotional and mental state. This step is necessary for helping them determine whether the patient needs short-term or long-term treatment.

Policy making

Social workers build a clinical relationship with their clients, which means they can identify their needs and recommend better solutions to promote alcohol and substance abuse treatment. They are well placed to champion the rights of their clients by advocating for policies that promote behavioral health resources and better access to counseling services. They can also contribute to policies affecting basic needs, such as housing.

Academic research

Social workers have extensive knowledge of various human rights philosophies and other relevant ideologies. Their activities and experiences can help model ways of enhancing the social functioning of individuals and communities. Social workers can choose to specialize in research work to promote positive experiences for their clients and enhance their understanding of various entities limiting treatments.

Expert witnessing

Justice is a crucial part of social work. Although there are dedicated justice and corrections social workers, drug and substance abuse social workers can also be required by law to deliver expert case analysis. Social workers may also be called upon to testify in court based on their professional findings.

Stages used by social workers for treating addiction

Treating substance and alcohol addiction is a complex process that requires patience, dedication, honesty and hard work from both the client and the professional. Whether the client is seeking treatment voluntarily or involuntarily, the social worker has to develop a plan that will best suit them and help them avoid a relapse. The plan must include vital steps that support recovery and complete independence from drugs and alcohol.

Relationship building

Social workers must build some level of trust with their clients to help them appropriately. Creating a rapport sets a great foundation for this relationship, wherein both parties enjoy mutual understanding and trust. Trust allows the client to open up to the social worker about their addiction and what triggers their alcohol and substance use.

Social workers are ethically required to be trustworthy as they become integral to their client’s treatment process. They can collect information beyond the client’s words by observing their non-verbal cues. Once they have bonded, the client can understand the importance of counseling and work toward a common goal with the professional.


A comprehensive assessment helps a social worker understand their patient’s needs while analyzing the extent of the addiction. The assessment also covers socio-economic aspects such as mental illness or family problems that may trigger the abuse. An essential order of business for a social worker is ensuring that their clients have access to basic needs such as shelter and connecting them to resources that will aid their treatment and improve their lives.

Development of treatment plans

Social workers develop treatment plans based on the findings of their comprehensive assessment. The plan may include interventions by other specialists, such as healthcare providers, physical health coaches or even nutritionists. The social worker may create a multidisciplinary team to help in the holistic recovery of the client. They remain an integral part of the team as they continue re-engineering the plan depending on the client’s reception and progress.


Maintenance involves the creation of a structure, usually a routine that the client must adhere to in order to maintain the treatment plan. The activities during maintenance can differ from one client to another since individuals have unique needs. They might include therapy sessions multiple times a week, active development of coping skills, and regular check-ins with the social worker.

This stage of treatment usually requires a lot of introspection and discipline to maintain positive results. The social worker must be nonjudgmental and constantly review and adjust initial plans to accommodate any changes.

Evaluation of achievements

This stage involves different designs of treatment plans based on trends and progress. At this stage, the social worker determines additional resources or activities that could accelerate the healing process. They may also reduce the number of sessions or give the client more control by letting them review their progress or allowing them to follow routines unsupervised.

Achievement evaluations may also come in the form of celebrating smaller milestones to motivate further positive results.

Professionals need to maintain a positive attitude throughout the process by applauding even the smallest achievements to encourage a successful recovery.

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