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Mental Health And Substance Abuse Social Workers Career

Career Description

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers assess and treat individuals with mental, emotional, or substance abuse problems, including abuse of alcohol,  tobacco, and/or other drugs. Activities may include individual and group therapy, crisis intervention, case management, client advocacy, prevention, and education.

Common Work Tasks

  • Assess and treat individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems, including abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
  • Conduct individual and group therapy, outreach,  crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and teaching skills needed for everyday living
  • Help plan for supportive services to ease clients’ return to the community
  • Work in hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, individual and family services agencies, or local governments
  • Interview clients, review records, and confer with other professionals to evaluate mental or physical condition of client or patient
  • Collaborate with counselors, physicians, and nurses to plan and coordinate treatment, drawing on social work experience and patient needs
  • Monitor, evaluate, and record client progress with respect to treatment goals
  • Refer patient, client, or family to community resources for housing or treatment to assist in recovery from mental or physical illness, following through to ensure service efficacy
  • Counsel and aid family members to assist them in understanding, dealing with, and supporting the client or patient
  • Modify treatment plans according to changes in client status

Other Job Titles

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers are also known by other titles, including:

  • Clinical Social Workers
  • Medical and Public Health Social Workers
  • Occupational Social Workers
  • Gerontology Social Workers

Education,  Training, and Experience

Education and Training
A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common minimum requirement to qualify for a job as a social worker; however, majors in psychology, sociology, and related fields may qualify for some entry-level jobs, especially in small community agencies. Although a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for entry into the field, an advanced degree has become the standard for many positions. A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is typically required for positions in health settings and is required for clinical work as well. Some jobs in public and private agencies also may require an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in social services policy or administration. Supervisory,  administrative, and staff training positions usually require an advanced degree. College and university teaching positions and most research appointments normally require a doctorate in social work (DSW or Ph.D.).

Certification and Licensure
All States and the District of Columbia have licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles.  Although standards for licensing vary by State, a growing number of States are placing greater emphasis on communications skills, professional ethics, and sensitivity to cultural diversity issues. Most States require 2 years (3,000 hours) of supervised clinical experience for licensure of clinical social workers.

The National Association of Social Workers offers voluntary credentials. Social workers with a master’s degree in social work may be eligible for the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW), or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) credential, based on their professional experience. Credentials are particularly important for those in private practice; some health insurance providers require social workers to have them in order to be reimbursed for services.

Social workers should be emotionally mature, objective, and sensitive to people and their problems. They must be able to handle responsibility, work independently,  and maintain good working relationships with clients and coworkers. Volunteer or paid jobs as a social work aide can help people test their interest in this field.


The median annual salary for a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker is $37,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $60,000,  and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $24,000.  Median earnings in the industries employing the largest number of mental health and substance abuse social workers are:

  • Outpatient Care Centers - $39,080
  • Individual and Family Services - $37,520
  • Residential Mental Retardation, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Facilities - $34,440
  • Local Government - $44,250
  • Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals - $43,260

Job Outlook

  • 2006-2016 Employment growth:  30%
  • Number of new jobs created 2006-2016: 37,000
  • Employment 2006 : 122,000
  • Employment 2016:  159,000
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