What Are Mental Health And Substance Abuse Social Workers?
Mental Health And Substance Abuse Social Workers are what you probably think of when you hear the word “therapist.” They have ongoing clinical relationships with individuals, couples, families, and groups in community treatment programs, schools, or office settings. Mental health or substance abuse social workers may work in group offices, individual offices, in schools, or in specialized settings such as a therapeutic wilderness camp or group home. Some mental health and substance abuse social workers are business owners with their own practices. After you find your niche, you may even be called upon to serve as an expert witness in court.
You may work for an agency that does exclusively grief counseling, or an addictions treatment center that assists clients with everything from eating disorders to methadone maintenance. Some social workers in this field work for a large group practice that provides a variety of services where you can diversify your practice or specialize.
Generally speaking, your job revolves around diagnosing clinical disorders, identifying client goals, formulating a plan to meet those goals, connecting clients with resources to supplement your work, and working with clients to achieve the goals set out in their individual plans. This is accomplished via psychosocial assessments, collaborating with a treatment team, conducting ongoing counseling with the identified client and significant others, reviewing progress, and working with the client to establish support systems when your work is finished.
How Do I Know if Mental Health or Substance Abuse Social Work Is Right For Me?
Do you enjoy critical thinking? Most mental health and substance abuse social workers are responsible for creating unique treatment plans for each client. This requires analytical and out-of-the-box thinking, particularly if the client is resistant.
Would you enjoy working with the same clients over a long period of time? It takes a long time to change behavior, especially if it’s been ingrained over many years or is exacerbated by a mental health diagnosis. You may work with some clients for months or even years.
What issues do you bring to the table? You will probably hear (more than once) during graduate school that would-be therapists should engage in therapy. Not only will you gain insight into how it feels to be “on the couch,” but your emotional health is crucial if you want to help others become so.
Can you handle client failure? Relapse is a probability and helping people who “don’t want help” can be frustrating. These clients fight hard, sometimes lifelong battles with conditions which carry stigmas and daily challenges. You must earn their trust while maintaining professional distance. It takes a special personality to work in addictions and mental health.
What Are the Requirements?
Mental health and substance abuse social work almost always requires licensure beyond the Master’s in Social Work, or at the very least, supervision by someone licensed while you work to meet your state’s licensing requirements. This is especially important if your employer gets paid by insurance companies. You will participate in ongoing continuing education courses to renew your license every couple of years. Those holding a Bachelor’s in Social Work may also work in these settings as paraprofessionals under the close supervision of a clinical social worker.
How Marketable Are Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers?
This is a tricky question. Nonprofit organizations fund their services via grants and donations. Some for-profit agencies take cash payments only. You can expect to make a lot less money as a grief counselor in a nonprofit community agency funded by a local grant than in a private practice where clients pay out of pocket or via insurance.
Even in private practice, there are a lot of factors that influence how much money you make, such as the community you serve or how good you are at pitching your services. Some private practice social workers make close to $150,000/year. Others make as little as $18,000/year. The current median salary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse social workers in the US is $39,980.
At present, mental health and substance abuse practitioners make up approximately 19 percent of MSWs. In general, the job forecast for these practitioners is pretty good! With socialized health care and mental health parity on the way, we can expect insurance carriers to increase the demand for services as more families have access to treatment.
A Day in the Life of a Mental Health/Substance Abuse Social Worker
The mental health or substance abuse social worker’s day is filled with counseling sessions and other activities established in their treatment plans. This starts with assessing new clients, identifying their areas of concern, and developing a treatment plan in partnership with the client. In a community-based setting (i.e. an outpatient clinic or short term residential treatment center), you will have a regular routine, at least until a client crisis pops up. Your day is filled with client sessions, though what this consists of varies. Some workers meet with clients exclusively on a one-to-one basis. Others may rotate between individual, couples, or family counseling and group therapy meetings.
A substance abuse social worker might work at an outpatient clinic for teens. Your day starts by checking voicemail and email to see if any urgent matters have come in since the last shift. Particularly when working with school-age youth, your day may start later or your morning may be focused on case management, billing and related documentation, phone calls with parents, court officers, and other constituents. Individual clients or families may come in for assessments to determine the level of care needed. You may work with parents separately from your teen clients at times, to assess familial aspects that might be contributing to the child’s issues, or to provide support as they attempt to make changes within the child’s environment. Many substance abuse counselors also conduct group therapy where all participants work on a mutually identified goal. For both mental health and substance abuse social workers, you can expect to put out client fires from time to time, including suicidal ideation, intentional or accidental overdose, runaway or other related behavioral problems, and incarceration. A well-planned therapy session can be flipped on its head by something that’s happened since the last time you saw your client. Your clients will definitely keep things interesting!