How Can Social Workers Treat Addiction Effectively?

social workers treat addiction
social workers treat addiction

Drug and alcohol addiction impacts quality of life for those afflicted. Their relationships, employment, and health are just a few areas affected. Social workers treat addiction as trained professionals equipped to handle the behavioral and chemical dynamics associated with substance abuse

Simply put, this treatment can be pivotal in helping an individual overcome addiction. In this article, we will examine the question: Can Social Workers Treat Addiction Effectively?

Social workers who have earned a Master of Social Work degree and passed state Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) requirements can treat various conditions including substance abuse. By applying evidence-based interventions, social workers treat addiction by providing the groundwork necessary for an effective plan of action.

Though the road to recovery is complex, here are some ways social workers treat addiction, helping their clients overcome substance abuse.


social workers treat addiction clinical counseling

Clinical Counseling

A highly tailored and empowering aspect of clinical social work is counseling individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. Substance addiction problems do not develop overnight, but is instead made up of series of factors influencing individuals in different ways. Therapeutic intervention can help an individual heal from past trauma.

Clients may also have limited support systems due to their personal history or as the result of their addiction impacting close relationships. Clinical counseling provides clients with the means to be and feel heard without judgment as they work toward recovery.

Steps within professional counseling include the following:

  1. Assessment
  2. Treatment
  3. Maintenance
  4. Achievement Evaluation


social workers treat addiction assessment


Why is it important for social workers who treat additiction to know their clients' histories? Because addiction is complex. Prior to starting treatment, social workers conduct assessments to understand the unique dynamics impacting their clients. These include discussing the extent of the addiction, the frequency of substance use, family history, and any triggers in their current lives contributing to abuse.

Socio-emotional issues, including family problems and mental illness, frequently exacerbate substance abuse issues. Thorough assessments of these factors is essential to understanding what is impacting clients.

During assessments, social workers treat addiction by checking to make sure basic needs such as food and housing are met. Clients are then referred to appropriate resources if needed.

Treatment Plans

After assessments, social workers treat addiction by developing comprehensive treatment plans for their clients. Treatment plans are tailored to each individual’s needs and may take months or even years to be fully implemented. The social worker may serve on a multidisciplinary team of specialists, healthcare providers, and human service workers who all collaborate cohesively to deliver treatment plans.

Treatment plans often include individual counseling, which is one of the most effective ways social workers treat addiction. They may also include group therapy, referrals to healthcare providers, and employee assistance programs.

It may be difficult for someone with a substance abuse issue to seek help. There may be feelings of shame or dependency, poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or other emotional issues.

Clients may also rebound multiple times during recovery. Behavior which has developed over a long period of time is difficult to simply change.

When this is the case, social workers engage their clients in dialogue aimed at determining the factors preventing them from taking the next step in their recovery. Insights are then included in collaborative plans that will gradually help clients adjust.

When it's difficult for clients to follow through with recovery, social workers will work to find out why and collaborate with them.


After meeting with clients during the intake phase and developing a treatment plan, social workers next help create structure to maintain treatment plans. Clients typically attend weekly counseling sessions with a social worker. They may also be involved in group therapy in addition to individual counseling sessions.

Therapy aims to help clients develop coping skills including stress management, conflict resolution, and self-reflection. The social worker’s check-ins during regular sessions comprise a non-judgmental way for clients to start orientating themselves to the process of checking-in, fostering introspection, and initiating and maintaining positive growth.

Helping clients develop coping skills is a critically important part of therapy.

Evaluating Achievement

After clients and social workers have established a working relationship, progress is evaluated to determine if adjustments should be made to treatment plans. Perhaps a given client could benefit from additional therapy, such as family or group therapy. Depending on progress, clients may also start doing sessions every other week instead of weekly.

Treatment aims to help clients understand toxic influences, make positive changes, and celebrate small wins. The goal is to help clients develop stronger control over their life, eventually leading to a substance-free lifestyle.

Social workers celebrate small wins to help clients stay motivated during recovery.


social workers treat addiction treatment plans

Connecting Clients to Resources

Social workers also work within many systems and serve as liaisons to connect clients with resources. Clients in poverty, who need help meeting basic needs, may be referred to food banks, homeless shelters, or human services programs.

Social workers may also work alongside law enforcement and court officials to aid those experiencing domestic abuse, prostitution, and exploitation. To help those with criminal records find employment, social worker addiction specialists refer clients to employers who hire individuals with a history of substance abuse. Social workers can serve as references for their clients, and attest to work abilities helping them succeed in their job search.

Changing Lives

Florida State University’s online Master of Social Work provides students with the skills and abilities to make a meaningful difference and change countless lives as clinical social workers. Those with an interest in substance abuse counseling learn how to empower clients suffering from addiction, improving their quality of life. Being fully accredited, the online MSW program is designed for busy professionals, either with or without a Bachelor of Social Work degree.

See our infographic to read about the different career paths in social work.

Learn more about Florida State's online MSW program today.



Compton, W.M., Gfroerer, J., Conway, K.P., & Finger, M.S. (2014). Unemployment and Substance Outcomes in the United States 2002-2010. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 142, 350-353. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.06.2012 (

National Association of Social Workers. (N.d). NASW standards for social work practice with clients with substance abuse disorders.