Social Work and Substance Use Disorder: How to Treat Addiction

A social worker talks to a client.
A social worker talks to a client.

Updated February 10, 2023

Drug and alcohol addiction impacts the quality of life of those experiencing it. Relationships, employment and health are just a few areas that substance use can affect. In treating addiction, social workers are trained professionals equipped to handle the behavioral dynamics of substance use.

Simply put, this treatment can be pivotal in helping an individual overcome addiction. It’s important for social workers to fully understand the role of social work in substance use disorder treatment for it to be as effective as possible, particularly since the road to recovery is often complex. Social workers who’ve earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and passed state requirements to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) can treat various conditions, including substance use. By applying evidence-based interventions, social workers treat addiction by providing the groundwork necessary for an effective action plan.

A group supporting a distressed person.


Social Workers and Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Counseling individuals with drug or alcohol addiction is a highly tailored and empowering aspect of clinical social work. Substance use disorder issues don’t develop overnight. Rather, they consist of a series of legal, social and cultural 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 due to their addiction impacting close relationships. Clinical social work provides clients with the means to be and feel heard without judgment as they work toward recovery.


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Five Steps Social Workers Use to Treat Addiction

Because treating substance use is complex, helping people stay on the road to recovery means applying a deliberate strategy of key steps. These steps aim to respectfully support someone striving to recover from substance use.


1. Relationship Building

Creating rapport with clients is fundamental for successful counseling. It helps social workers and clients develop a sense of mutual trust. This trust can encourage clients to be transparent about their addictions and what may inspire their addictive tendencies.

When social workers are trustworthy, their clients are often more open to the recovery process. Relationship building means learning to spot clients’ nonverbal and other cues, and this can inform the direction of subsequent steps in the recovery process.

Ultimately, a strong professional relationship between social worker and client can make recovery a positive, collaborative process. This can be critical because the individuals seeking substance use counseling may enter treatment with a suspicious and negative mental outlook. Establishing a safe, engaging relationship with clients is a key first step to helping them see the value of counseling and its goals.

A social worker talking to a client with a clipboard.


2. Assessment

It’s important for social workers who treat addiction to know their clients’ history because addiction is complex. Before starting treatment, social workers conduct comprehensive assessments to understand the unique dynamics impacting their clients. These assessments include discussing the client’s extent of addiction, their substance use frequency, family history and any triggers in their current lives contributing to abuse.

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

During assessments, social workers also ensure that basic needs such as food and housing are met before beginning substance use treatment. Clients are then referred to appropriate resources if needed.


3. Treatment Plans

After assessing a client’s history of a substance use disorder, social workers can develop comprehensive treatment plans for their clients. Treatment plans are tailored to each individual’s needs and may take months or even years to fully implement. 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, 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 use issue to seek help. There may be feelings of shame or dependency, poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety or other emotional issues. Clients may also relapse multiple times during recovery. This isn’t necessarily unusual; behavior developed over a long period is difficult to change, and additional factors may be at play.

When this is the case, social workers engage their clients in dialogue to determine the factors preventing them from taking the next step in their recovery. Insights are 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 on solutions.


4. Maintenance

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

Therapy aims to help clients develop coping skills, a critically important part of therapy. These skills include stress management, conflict resolution and self-reflection. The social worker’s check-ins during regular sessions are a nonjudgmental way for clients to start orienting themselves to the process of checking in, fostering introspection and initiating and maintaining positive growth.


5. Evaluating Achievement

After establishing a working relationship with their clients, social workers will evaluate progress and determine if they need to adjust treatment plans. Perhaps a given client could benefit from additional therapy, such as family or group therapy. Depending on progress, clients may start sessions every other week instead of weekly.

Social work substance use disorder treatment aims to help clients understand toxic influences, make positive changes and celebrate small wins. The goal is to help clients develop more control over their life, eventually leading to a substance-free lifestyle. Every victory, no matter how small, needs to be celebrated. Doing so will help clients stay motivated during recovery. This could spell the difference between a strategy that succeeds and one that doesn’t.

A group of hands together.


Mental Health and Substance Use Resources

Social workers also work within many systems and serve as liaisons between clients and resources. They can refer clients in poverty who need help meeting basic needs to food banks, homeless shelters or human services programs. Resources that social workers can use in these situations include the following:

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


Become a Social Worker to Change Lives

Helping people overcome substance use can leave a profound impact, and not just on the individual. Improving people’s health and well-being through effective counseling strategies can also positively impact the lives of their families and friends, particularly if the road to recovery allows them to repair damaged relationships. This can make the role of social workers one of the most satisfying professions in public health.

Florida State University’s Online MSW program equips students with the skills and abilities to make a meaningful difference and change countless lives as clinical social workers. Those interested in substance use counseling learn how to empower clients with addiction, improving their quality of life. The Online MSW program is fully accredited and designed for busy professionals, either with or without a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree.

FSU Student Michelle O'Neill


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