Substance Abuse Counselors and Social Workers – Making a Difference in Our Communities

by Felicia Bechtoldt

March 6, 2018

With the drug abuse epidemic affecting communities across the U.S., substance abuse counselors and social workers are on the front lines of providing help to individuals with mental, emotional, and substance abuse problems. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016. In Oregon, there were 506 deaths caused by drug overdoses during the same year, which was more than double the number of deaths in 2000, when 208 deaths were caused by drug overdoses.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers and substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors play a vital role in many people’s lives as they help people find customized solutions to their problems with addiction and substance abuse. They develop specialized treatment plans based on patient histories, clinical experience, and research. They assist individuals in overcoming dependencies, monitor the progress of their patients, and help family members to assist them in understanding and supporting the patient.

Industries of Employment

In 2014, there were 2,103 mental health and substance abuse social workers and 1,160 substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. About 40 percent of mental health and substance abuse social workers (883) work in local and state government, excluding education and hospitals. About 60 percent (1,220) work in a wide range of private-sector health care industries. About one-quarter of mental health and substance abuse social workers in Oregon are employed in the social assistance industry, in particular in establishments that provide nonresidential social assistance services for individuals and families. About 18 percent work in nursing and residential care facilities and 10 percent work in ambulatory health care services.

Most substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors (89%) work in the private sector, with 28 percent employed in ambulatory health services, specifically in outpatient care centers; 22 percent in the social assistance industry; and 19 percent in nursing and residential care facilities.

Growth Projected

In Oregon, mental health and substance abuse social workers and substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are high-paying occupations that will be in high demand over the next decade. According to the Oregon Employment Department’s employment projections, mental health and substance abuse social workers will add 400 jobs between 2014 and 2024 with 91 projected annual openings. This represents a 19 percent increase in employment over 10 years, higher than the 13.9 percent growth rate for all occupations in Oregon. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors will add 274 jobs between 2014 and 2024 with 52 projected annual openings. This represents a 23.6 percent increase in employment in the next decade.

Wage Rates

In 2017, wages for mental health and substance abuse social workers varied from a starting wage of $13.25 per hour to $31.64 at the higher end of the scale. The median hourly wage for this occupation was $21.60 in 2017. For substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, wages were between $15.07 and $37.24 with a median hourly wage of $18.94.
Workers in these occupations must possess a wide range of skills. They assess individuals’ degree of drug dependency, evaluate their mental and physical condition and determine their suitability for participation in a specific program. During and after treatment, they review and evaluate patients' progress and intervene as an advocate to solve emergency problems in crisis situations. Other duties for workers in these occupations include: helping patients gain and maintain employment; and developing and implementing public education, prevention, and health promotion programs.

There are two types of mental health and substance abuse social work: clinical and non-clinical. Both are important. Clinical work includes mental health diagnosis and addressing issues like trauma, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. Non-clinical social workers impact lives in ways like policy analysis, rehabilitation services, or program implementation. They are also qualified for some types of counseling, such as conflict resolution or emotional health. Due to the sensitive nature of the issues they deal with, mental health and substance abuse social workers must receive specialized training and are often licensed.

The typical entry-level education for mental health and substance abuse social workers is a master’s degree in social work. Depending on the license type, a bachelor’s degree in social work is also accepted. The Oregon Board of Licensed Social Workers offers the following licenses:

  • Clinical social work licenses:
  • Clinical Social Work Associate for applicants with a master’s degree. This is the first step in obtaining a clinical license.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker for applicants with a master’s degree that were previously licensed for clinical practice and met all Oregon licensure requirements, including the Association of Social Work Boards national level clinical exam.
  • Non-clinical licenses:
  • Licensed Masters Social Worker for applicants with a master’s degree seeking non-clinical practice.
  • Registered Baccalaureate Social Worker (RBSW) for applicants with a bachelor’s degree in social work seeking non-clinical practice. When job-hunting, it’s important to know that positions at the RBSW level do not usually carry the title of “social worker.” Search instead for jobs that require a bachelor’s in social work. They often have titles like: mental health assistant; group home worker; or program coordinator.

Portland State University is the only university in Oregon that offers a master’s degree in social work. Six universities offer a bachelor’s degree in social work and five community colleges offer an associate’s degree or certificate in social work.

For substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, the typical entry-level education ranges from a high school diploma to a master’s degree depending on the certification. The Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Oregon, an affiliate of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors, provides the following certifications:

  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor I for applicants that have an education training in alcohol and drug addiction, supervised work experience and successful completion of a written examination. An associate’s degree is not required.
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor II for applicants with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and supervised experience hours.
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor III for applicants with a master’s degree and supervised experience hours.
  • Certified Prevention Specialist for applicants with an education training in prevention and supervised work experience.
  • Certified Recovery Mentor for applicants who are in recovery for chemical dependency issues and have been substance-free for at least two years. No examination or experience is required, but the applicant must complete a state approved recovery mentor training program. Recovery mentors don’t provide treatment. They provide a support network for someone re-entering society after a period in inpatient treatment.
  • Certified Gambling Addictions Counselor level 1 and level 2 for applicants with education and/or credentialing requirements, supervised experience hours, and successful completion of a written examination.
In Oregon, five community colleges have associate’s degree or certificate programs in addiction counseling. Addiction counseling is also offered as a minor in degree programs in social work, nursing, counseling, or psychology. Employers often offer training to substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors with advanced degrees and licenses can become program directors in clinics, hospitals, government health and human service agencies, and other facilities.

Substance abuse counselors and social workers are invaluable fighters in the drug abuse epidemic. They help people fight addition and regain control of their lives. While challenging, the role of substance abuse counselors and social workers is one that can be extremely rewarding. If you are passionate about helping those in need, a career as a substance abuse counselor or social worker might be just what you are looking for!

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