Substance Use in Social Work

Social workers in diverse fields of practice, including health, mental health, child welfare, corrections, and aging are facing increasing professional demands to work with clients where substance use/addiction issues impact the functioning and well-being of individuals and/or their families. The second year concentration in substance use disorder treatment provides MSW students the opportunity to gain in-depth education that provides them with the skills necessary to detect, triage, assess, and treat clients when substance use is an issue.

The annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports information on substance use, abuse, and dependence among Americans aged 12 and older (National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA], Nationwide Trends July 2012). Reported in the current study, illicit drug use has been increasing. In 2010, an estimated 22.6 million Americans (12 or older), representing 8.9 percent of the population, had used illicit drugs or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (pain killers, stimulants or tranquilizers) in the previous month of the study. Marijuana accounted for the majority of the increases as it is the most commonly used illicit drug. Other drugs had not changed appreciably. In 2010, 7.0 million Americans, or 2.7%) had used psychotherapeutic prescription drugs non-medically, usually subscribed to someone other than the person abusing these substances. 2.3 million Americans had used hallucinogens that included Ecstasy and LSD. The study further showed that underage drinking (persons 12-20) had actually declined, but binge and heavy drinking was increasing, particularly among men. In 2010, 30.99% of men and 15.7% of women reported binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a single occasion).

The NIDA website also provides information on the medical consequences of drug use. It reports drug addition is a brain disease, although often begun voluntarily, results in changes in gene expression and brain circuitry. These alterations in turn affect human behavior and are marked with compulsive craving, drug-seeking behaviors and use. The impact on health of substance use/abuse can result in cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and lung disease.

The impact of abuse on workplace resources is also significant. Nearly 75% of all adult illicit drug users are employed, as well as binge and heavy alcohol users. NIDA studies (2008) show that when compared with non-substance users, including alcohol, substance-abusing employees are more likely to change jobs frequently; be late or absent from work; be less productive; be involved in a workplace accident; and, file workers’ compensation claims more often. When these issues are dealt with, morale and productivity increases, and consequently, absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover, and theft are reduced. Employers reported that health status among employees and family members in recovery improves with concomitant decreases in use of medical and behavioral health benefits.

These studies also show that prevention works. When employees engage in treatment and employers put Drug Free Workplace programs in place, there is a 91% decrease in absenteeism, an 88% decrease in problems with supervisors, a 93% decrease in work errors and a 97% decrease in on-the-job injuries. This makes the workplace safer for all employees.

Drug and alcohol abuse not only affects the abuser, but has a significant impact on family members. Inter-partner violence, child abuse, diversion of financial resources for the procurement of drugs/alcohol, illegal activities, lying, extra-marital affairs, and abandonment, to name just a few, create daily uncertainty and trauma for family members. In the practice arena social workers often find substance abuse as an issue in the family unit, if not directly with the identified client. This can include those individuals who were exposed to these environments as children and in adulthood either flee such dynamics, or unconsciously replicate the learned dysfunctional patterns. Substance abuse is one of the factors identified in Adverse Childhood Experiences that continue to affect the individual long into adulthood.

Students choosing the Substance Use Treatment Concentration are required to complete at least 300 hours of their practicum experience in an agency that provides direct experience with substance use treatment. The practicum can be completed either in the first year of the MSW program, or concurrently with second year coursework (in substance abuse or any other concentration) and practicum.


Graduates of this concentration are able to:

  • Identify the types of substance and medications that are misused or abused which can lead to dependency and/or addiction.
  • Understand the effects of substance abuse on brain functioning.
  • Diagnose use, abuse, dependence and recognize the appropriate level of care to begin treatment.
  • Identify co-occurring mental health and/or health issues and when and how to coordinate treatments using a multi-disciplinary approach.
  • Identify, implement and evaluate evidence-based treatment modalities.
  • Identify strategies for prevention.
  • Identify developmental issues, human behavior and diversity in the social environment for individuals with substance use disorders, to include the impact on individuals, family and groups.
  • Learn a conceptual framework for dealing with substance use treatment as it incorporates issues of special risk populations, cognitive impairment, supervision, recovery management, and continuing care (including relapse triggers).
  • Practice within the values and ethics that apply to both the standards of treatment of substance use disorders and social work practice.

Substance Use in Social Work Concentration Program of Study Guide

Types of Substance Use Practicum Placements: Inpatient, residential and outpatient mental health and health programs serving persons with substance abuse, including adult and juvenile justice facilities.

For more information, please contact:
Jerry Buie, LCSW
Assistant Professor/Lecturer Chair, Substance Use Concentration
801-587-5234 SW 332

Last Updated: 9/4/18