How Do Social Workers Help With Substance Use Disorder

How do you help an addict? It’s a question that so many families and friends ask when they have a loved one suffering from substance abuse. Most people are simply not experienced enough in drug and alcohol addiction issues to know what to do; they get caught between enabling the addict and trying to practice tough love, which can be an emotional and financial battleground.

Whether a social worker is associated with a school, a hospital, community social services or a rehabilitation center, he or she understands what goes on in a drug addict or alcoholic’s mind and what the steps are to getting that person help in the most compassionate, effective way.

A look at the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s definition of addiction helps in understanding just how complex it actually is:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. …Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

In the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were an estimated 21.5 million people ages 12 and older in the United States who had some kind of a substance use disorder, which represented 8.1% of the nation’s population. Alcohol abuse accounted for the largest number, at 17 million; 7.1 million had an illicit drug use disorder; and an estimated 1.9 million had a pain-reliever addiction.

“Social workers play a key role in working with those affected by drug and alcohol addiction – from client treatment and recovery to working with the family of the addicted person,” said Tim Tunner, PhD, MSW, senior policy associate for behavioral health at the National Association of Social Workers. “Social workers are the largest providers of mental health services, so it is natural that they would be directly involved in treatment and recovery of addictions.”

Addiction to alcohol and drugs can negatively affect every part of an individual’s personality and actions. It often takes a professional with sophisticated training to help unravel the multiple aspects.

In pursuing a Master in Social Work (MSW) degree, social workers learn to recognize substance use disorders with a range of substances from alcohol to opiates prescribed for pain and illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

How Social Workers Help Families of Addicts

Alcohol or drug addiction affects all aspects of a person’s  life and can lead to job loss, financial difficulty, homelessness, domestic abuse and the breakdown of marriages and other family relationships –affecting everyone in the family.

“Family counseling is an important part of any substance abuse treatment program,” writes Claire Caines, MSW, LCSW, CADC, for the Social Workers Help Starts Here organization. “It provides education and support to help family members understand the cycle of addiction and avoid participating in it. Social workers recommend that loved ones detach emotionally because the addict needs to own the problem and take responsibility for their recovery.”

Social workers are trained to evaluate and work with clients and families experiencing the effects of Substance use Disorder, providing clinical services, referral to appropriate programs and resources in order to support the recovery of the client and the family.

“As a social worker, it's important to be aware of the potential for substance abuse in any client who seeks help,” writes Ashley Miller on the Houston Chronicle’s website. “For example, a client may seek help for depression but conceal an underlying alcohol or substance abuse addiction. Your role is to tease out these possible underlying issues and help the client obtain proper assistance in whatever way necessary.”

Boston University School of Social Work is ranked as one of the nation's top social work schools. Learn more about their online Master of Social Work program.