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Addiction Advisor: Seven Reasons to Consider a Social Work Career in Addiction Treatment
By Breana Cook, LMSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 4 P. 10

Social work has always been a rewarding career for those of us with the compassion and desire to help people in our community when they need it most. The opportunity to help change someone’s life for the better is extremely gratifying, despite it also being a significant responsibility.

As a child in a military family, I traveled all over the world and was exposed to a wide range of people and cultures. Even as a young woman, I developed a deep appreciation for the breadth of experience I gained through this exposure to such a diverse society. It wasn’t until I had an opportunity to intern at an addiction treatment center as part of my Master of Social Work program that I understood just how valuable my exposure to diverse populations and cultures would prove to be in helping me relate to clients from all walks of life. I found my experiences helped me connect with clients where they are, and I fell in love with helping them on the road to recovery.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the influence my discipline provides to this setting and why I encourage everyone in the social work field to consider addiction treatment as a career option.

Addiction treatment aligns with the core values of the profession. Social workers employed in addiction treatment offer services no different than those their colleagues offer in all other settings. The tasks required of social workers in addiction treatment embody the core values of the profession—service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. Society has influenced individuals to believe that those suffering from addiction are amoral, difficult, manipulative, or hopeless. On top of that, a misconception is that social workers are responsible for displacing families, but nothing could be further from the truth. Social workers work closely with families who have loved ones suffering from addiction to restore the family through both education and prevention. We engage in community outreach and advocate for the resources and effective policies to expand treatment options.

You can make a huge impact. The stigma around addiction makes many people fear that working in treatment will be difficult—that the clients will be scary or dangerous. But the vast majority are genuinely kind, humble people, and they come from all walks of life. They’re mothers, fathers, teachers, medical professionals, professional tradespeople, and veterans—addiction doesn’t discriminate. Most have endured trauma and desperately need someone to listen and help them heal. As overdose deaths reach record highs, every day working in substance use disorder treatment is an opportunity to save a client’s life. So many of those suffering from the disease of addiction have lost their ability to recognize and avoid risks, or they’ve simply lost the will to care. There’s nothing more gratifying than to see someone find themselves again.

You don’t need personal substance use experience. There is a belief that to work in this field, one must have struggled with an addiction oneself. While it’s true that many people who work in this field came to it from a place of substance abuse themselves, it’s not a prerequisite. One does not need a history of addiction to make a difference. Social workers come prepared with knowledge, skills, and values to work in the field of addiction. Clients come to recognize and appreciate the need for that outside perspective and for someone to guide them to find new ways of thinking about their own experiences and how they manage daily life.

It can be mutually beneficial. Counseling clients in treatment is a growth opportunity to learn things about yourself and how you cope with your own personal life, trauma, and opportunities. It’s almost like being exposed to a new culture, giving you an opportunity to have a more well-rounded perspective on life. In the same way that a teacher might learn from their students, I also learn from my clients every day, and I’m inspired by their strength, determination, perseverance, and resilience.

One thing addiction work provides and prepares social workers for is the spontaneity within the day and diversity among clients. If you’re someone who gets bored with repeatable, formulaic processes, addiction treatment could be the perfect fit for you. There’s incredible variety. Working in addiction treatment, no two days are ever the same, and there are a variety of positions within the company that highlight the diversity/flexibility as a profession. At my agency, we have social workers working in various positions as treatment advocates, case managers, therapists, and administrative leaders. On any given day, I will conduct care coordination meetings with my team, individual counseling sessions with patients, group therapy sessions with 10 to 12 people, or meet with family members. The work here is dynamic and requires you to tap into a wide range of skills, from deep listening to crisis intervention to de-escalation strategies. You have to be attentive, consistent, and on your toes while always being compassionate. There’s never an opportunity to get bored.

It requires individualized care. Every client is different, bringing individual needs that demand unique care plans that often require out-of-the-box thinking. You will quickly find that addiction treatment is more than addressing the substance, as you are tasked with simultaneously understanding and reducing mental health complications. In this field, we don’t tell clients what to do, and there’s no power struggle. We use motivational interviewing techniques to listen, provide assurance, probe deeper, and facilitate behavior change by helping clients see and leverage their own strengths. We use what they say to help them find their own answers, which makes them more willing to hear outside input.

There’s strong job security and ample opportunity. Unfortunately, addiction isn’t going away anytime soon. Someone will always need our services, and addiction work is no different. While the broader field of social work is expected to grow by 9% through 2032, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook in mental health and substance abuse is expected to grow by 18%, outpacing the overall social work profession. The bureau also estimates the addition of more than 71,500 new addiction treatment positions in that time. Between the opioid epidemic, the uptick in substance use during the pandemic, and the generally higher-than-usual rates of anxiety and depression, there will be a long term demand for qualified social workers who can adapt, engage, and thrive in this environment.

Addiction treatment is a dynamic, satisfying career that can allow you to leverage your compassion, desire to support your community, and education to help someone find hope and a better path forward. It’s both professionally satisfying and personally fulfilling to push yourself to be more adaptable and to see the growth in each individual, helped by your guidance and commitment.

— Breana Cook, LMSW, is a counselor at Oxford Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility.