eBook: The Biggest Social Justice Issues of The Decade (2010 – 2020)
A study released in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that “approximately 20.8 million people aged 12
or older had a substance use disorder.” Substance abuse is classified as a disorder if alcohol or drug use is impeding the ability to perform competently and reliably at work, school or home.
The prevalence of addiction may not be new, but how these people are managed by U.S. drug policy has undergone many changes over the years, from reclassifications of drugs (according to their potential for abuse), to the legalization or decriminalization of certain drugs. Currently, American popular opinion seems to be leaning away from demonizing drug users — supported by a national survey by the Pew Research Center which found that 67 percent of respondents believe government should focus more on providing treatment than punishment.
In this section, we will briefly highlight:
• U.S. drug policy and shifting views on drug abusers
• How substance abuse disorders are treated
• Specializing in substance abuse social work
• The particular vulnerability of veterans
With such trends, social workers pursuing trauma-informed care practices or mental health and substance abuse specializations have more career opportunities to provide intervention and treatment. Service settings may include inpatient and outpatient drug-treatment centers, detoxification centers, halfway houses, methadone clinics and private offices.
Substance Abuse and Social Work
Regardless of area of practice, it is important that social workers are aware of new advances in treatment, as most will find themselves working to address substance use disorders with clients at some point during their career, at least peripherally.
Social workers with expertise with in substance abuse – including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, stimulant, hallucinogen or opioid use – especially are needed in fields such as mental health, corrections and homelessness. A substance abuse social worker may support residential, clinic, hospital, or community programs that assist addicts in recovery. This may include aiding clients in overcoming addictive thoughts and behaviors, facilitating transitions into the community, or conducting support groups.
With an intricate link to mental health, people who have been through trauma, or have undiagnosed mental health challenges, may turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. This coping mechanism can then turn into a co-occurring disorder coupled with a psychiatric or medical condition. Much like in cases of domestic violence though, clients may not self-identify; they may, for example, ask for help with issues of depression but also struggle with drug addiction. It is up to a social worker to be able to effectively identify the underlying issues driving the addiction.
Once dual diagnosis of mental health and addictions occurs, patients may need to be referred to a substance abuse social worker with further specialized training in these co-occurring areas. An MSW is often required for all these specialists* and students pursuing this should consider specialization.
*For licensed clinical roles, an MSW accredited by the CSWE is required.
Military Veterans Are Among Most Vulnerable to Substance Abuse
Social workers may want to look at the particular circumstances relating to military service that may intersect with substance abuse, veterans’ mental health
The Department of Health and Human Services’ SAMHSA, the U.S. agency that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation,
reports facts including:
- Between 2004 and 2006, 7.1 per cent of U.S. veterans met the criteria for a substance use disorder
- 70 per cent of homeless veterans also experience a substance use disorder
This is not to say all veterans are traumatized or likely to abuse pain medication or other substances, but the context of their experiences make this more likely. Cultural competency with this specific population (both service members and their families) is essential for effective care and treatment.