A State by State Licensure Guide

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

Mental health and substance abuse social workers work with clients who have mental conditions and/or addictions. Often it is an “and” – in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, rates of substance abuse are well above the norm. Trauma disordered individuals also turn frequently to alcohol and other drugs of abuse. Social workers, with their knowledge of humans systems, can be especially effective at addressing co-occurring disorders.

substance abuse social worker

Master’s trained clinical social workers provide psychotherapy. They also act as case managers for individuals with complex needs. In hospital settings, they act as discharge planners: navigating systems so that people have the resources and support when they leave the hospital. In an age of ever more effective pharmacological interventions – and ever increasing medical costs – people are often stabilized quickly. There can be incentive to push them right on out the door. But without long-term intervention, relapse is unavoidable. Even with it, setbacks happen.

Social workers uncover hidden problems and implement solutions. Some provide outreach to aging parents who have spent a good portion of their lives caring for grown children with mental illnesses. Some implement – and advocate for – Integrated Dual Disorders Treatment. Integrated treatment models are important because services have often been denied to people who needed them because they had a concurrent diagnosis that the facility did not feel equipped to handle.

Sometimes concurrent conditions have gone completely unrecognized. This is likely to happen when one of the conditions is mental disability. According to Social Work Today, mental illness often goes unrecognized in intellectually disabled populations. Again, social work can be part of the solution.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers can be found in hospitals, residential treatment centers, social service organizations, and health clinics. Some go into private practice providing psychotherapy and counseling. They must draw from a wide knowledge background.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker Education

How do you become a mental health social worker? Mental health social work, sometimes termed clinical social work, is a master’s level profession. A master’s is also necessary for many facets of substance abuse social work. Most social workers will find themselves working with individuals with substance problems at some point, at least peripherally. If a social worker wants to specialize in treating this population, they will do so at the master’s level (or afterward). A student sometimes has the opportunity pursue a certificate in substance abuse as part of a MSW program. The student may seek out work in substance abuse treatment to fulfill the practicum requirement. All accredited master’s programs require at least 900 hours in the field.

The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers a CSWE-accredited online Master's in Social Work. This program is ranked #12 by US News and World Report. A Bachelor's degree is required. Learn more about this program.

Earn your Master of Social Work online from Simmons College School of Social Work (SocialWork@Simmons) in as little as 15 months. CSWE-accredited. No GRE required Request information about the program.

Licensing and Certification

Clinical social workers – those who diagnose and treat mental disorders – are licensed in all 50 states. The process requires not only master’s level education but a licensing exam and period of supervised practice. Social workers who do not have clinical licensing may perform clinical duties under supervision, but will not do so independently.

Some jurisdictions require professionals who do substance abuse to attain certification separate from their primary licensing as social workers.

Licensed social workers may also seek voluntary certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Among the advanced practice specialty credentials available to MSWs are Qualified Clinical Social Worker, Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology, and Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker. Click Here for a list of the NASW credentials.

Career Outlook for Mental Health Social Workers and Substance Abuse Social Workers

The BLS reports a mean salary of $42,650 for social workers in the mental health and substance abuse fields. Those in psychiatric hospitals and general hospitals typically make above the mean, averaging $48,960 and $51,250 respectively. Those in residential care make somewhat below the mean.

NASW reports that social workers in private practice have widely varying salaries. There are some very high earners and also some low ones.

The BLS has projected 31% job growth for social workers between the years 2010 and 2020.