Substance Abuse Social Worker: Career and Salary Overview

Most social workers help clients struggling with substance abuse, but alcohol and substance abuse social workers specialize in helping people overcome addictions. They work with individuals and communities addicted to or affected by alcohol, drug, or tobacco abuse, along with addictive behaviors, such as gambling and overeating.

Substance abuse social workers assess patients to develop intervention and treatment strategies like interviews, counseling, and referrals. Clinical social workers use psychotherapy and pharmacological interventions. Social work practices, federal funding, and treatment services emphasize harm reduction, which means “meeting the client where the client is.”

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) recommends a master of social work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) as the qualifying degree for social workers providing clinical services.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers earn a mean annual salary of $51,670. We detail substance abuse social worker salaries, job growth, and education and licensing below.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a substance abuse social worker make an hour?

Mental health and substance abuse social workers earn a median hourly wage of $22.43. Those in the top 90th percentile make $38.89 per hour, while the bottom 10% make $14.20. New Jersey pays the highest mean hourly wage at $39.93.<

Where do substance abuse social workers work?

Substance abuse social workers find employment in a variety of settings, including medical, psychiatric, and substance abuse hospitals; outpatient substance abuse clinics; inpatient detoxification and rehabilitation facilities; private practice; and physicians’ offices. Other employers include community services, detention centers, government agencies, and schools. Some teach at the community or four-year college level.

How long does it take to become a substance abuse social worker?

The timeline for becoming a substance abuse social worker averages eight years, including earning a four-year bachelor’s degree and a two-year MSW, completing the required hours of supervised post-master’s work experience (averaging two years), and passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing examination. Licensing requirements vary by state.

Is a substance abuse social worker a mandated reporter?

Yes. Substance abuse treatment staff, including social workers, must report any suspected or known incidents of child abuse or neglect. To address concerns about mandatory reporting and damage to the therapeutic relationships with their clients, substance abuse social workers should inform clients of the mandatory reporting law prior to beginning treatment.

Top Paying Industries for Substance Abuse Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists insurance carriers as the top-paying industry for mental health and substance abuse social workers, with professionals in this industry earning an annual mean wage of $68,650. Specialty hospitals (excluding psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals) rank second, offering a mean average salary of $64,230.

Other employers paying high salaries include ambulatory healthcare services ($64,080), higher education ($63,890), and health practitioners’ offices ($61,250).

Top Paying States for Substance Abuse Social Workers

The BLS ranks New Jersey as the top-paying U.S. state for mental health and substance abuse social workers, with professionals earning a mean annual salary of $83,050. Listed second, tWashington, D.C. pays $66,080, followed by California with a $65,020 mean annual wage, Connecticut paying $64,590, and New York at $63,520.

California and New York lead as the states with the highest employment levels of mental health and substance abuse social workers, with 14,970 and 11,540 professionals, respectively. Pennsylvania takes the third spot, with 7,610 substance abuse social workers making a mean annual wage of $38,710. Massachusetts ranks fourth, with 6,870 professionals earning $46,900, and Ohio takes the fifth position, employing 6,650 substance abuse social workers at $45,950.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Substance Abuse Social Workers

Mental health and substance abuse social workers in Vallejo-Fairfield, California, earn substantially more money than those in other metropolitan areas, drawing a mean annual salary of $96,730.

California metro areas take seven other spots on the top-10 list: (2) Napa at $85,340, (3) Santa Rosa at $85,160, (5) Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura at $77,750, (6) San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward at $77,630, (7) Hanford-Corcoran at $75,900, (8) Madera at $75,610, and (9) San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande at $73,610. Trenton, New Jersey, ($83,310) and Watertown-Fort Drum, New York, ($70,520) rank fourth and 10th.

The metropolitan areas with the highest employment levels include New York with 9,040 making $64,300 a year, Los Angeles (6,570 at $64,290), and Boston (4,750 at $47,010).

Salary and Job Growth for Substance Abuse Social Workers

According to the BLS, employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to increase 18% through 2028. The BLS cites the growing trend of sending drug offenders to treatment centers instead of jail, along with more people seeking treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues, as the reasons for the projected growth. The agency anticipates 22,300 new mental health and substance abuse social worker positions to be added in the coming decade.

Job prospects look promising for all social workers, but especially for clinical social workers, who can directly and independently provide clients with psychosocial evaluations and treatment therapy services. The higher education and experience levels required to become a clinical mental health and substance abuse social worker can lead to more career opportunities and higher pay.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Social Worker

Graduates holding a bachelor of social work (BSW) can secure social work positions like case managers and care coordinators. However, to treat patients suffering from substance abuse and become a certified and licensed clinical social worker, they must earn an MSW.

MSW programs typically take two years to complete and encompass 60 credits. While program admission requires a bachelor’s degree, BSW-holders may be admitted with advanced standing, allowing them to earn their MSWs in one year.

MSW students take courses covering clinical practice, human behavior, research, and social policy during their first year. In their second year, they focus on their specialty area and obtain clinical experience through field placements. Substance abuse social worker programs include coursework in ethics and diversity issues for addiction social workers, the science of addiction, and treatments for substance abuse. Graduates are prepared to become nationally certified and seek state licensure.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Social work licensing requirements vary by state. Some jurisdictions license BSW-holders for entry-level, non-clinical jobs, but virtually all require a license to work as a clinical social worker. Depending on the state, the licenses available to MSW-holders might include licensed master of social work, licensed master social worker-advanced generalist, and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Candidates seeking an LCSW license must earn an MSW, pass the ASWB exam, and log 2-3 years of supervised clinical experience.

The NASW offers specialty certification in clinical alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Eligibility requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, 3,000 hours of clinical experience, and a state LCSW license.