How Much Do Substance Abuse Social Workers Earn?

How Much Do Substance Abuse Social Workers Earn?
Because treating those with substance abuse problems is specialized and expertise-dependent, salaries for social workers in this sector can be higher compared to other social work practice areas. Earnings depend on setting and employer. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland February 24, 2023

Top earners in substance abuse social work can earn over $100,000 a year. However, most counselors earn much less. Education level, certifications, location, and experience can all impact your earning potential.

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Substance abuse is a growing epidemic in the United States. From the opioid crisis to increased alcohol consumption to the misuse of prescription drugs, incidents of substance abuse disorder and substance use-related deaths have reached alarming peaks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic (by 28.5 percent). For the twelve-month period ending in April 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, nearly doubling the number for the preceding twelve months. Overdose is now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States.

The nation’s rate of substance abuse and mental health disorders (often referred to as co-occurring disorders) demands more robust treatment and preventative measures to address the growing problem.

Social workers are well positioned to help out in this crisis. Mental health and substance abuse social workers possess the knowledge and years of experience to prevent, assess, treat, and intervene through counseling and intervention strategies. They can help clients beat their addictions and assist in their recovery.

It’s a noble calling, and it may be the right job for you. If you’re considering a career in substance abuse social work, you’re probably wondering how much substance abuse social workers earn. This article addresses that question and also discusses:

  • What do substance abuse social workers do?
  • Substance abuse social worker skills
  • Substance abuse social worker training
  • How much do substance abuse social workers earn?
  • Are you cut out to be a substance abuse social worker?

What do substance abuse social workers do?

Substance abuse counselors typically perform the following duties:

  • Providing one-on-one counseling or group sessions to those dealing with substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment, poverty, or physical abuse
  • Collaborating with counselors, physicians, or nurses to develop and coordinate treatment plans
  • Ensuring patients adhere to the treatment plan by setting up appointments, arranging transportation, and providing additional support where needed
  • Monitoring and evaluating progress of patients with treatment plans and making modifications
  • Referring patients to community resources to assist with recovery
  • Assisting family members in supporting patients in their pursuit of treatment goals
  • Educating the community about resources to learn more about mental illness and substance abuse and conducting programs to prevent substance abuse
  • Committing to lifelong learning through continuing education, training, and workshops

You can find substance abuse social workers in outpatient care centers, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, local government agencies, community health centers, and other residential care or mental health and substance abuse facilities.

Substance abuse social worker job titles

Substance abuse social workers can have many job titles depending on their specialty or industry. Some roles may list generalist job titles such as:

  • Case manager
  • Community and social service specialist
  • Counselor
  • Social worker
  • Therapist

Other roles may require advanced education, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW) or additional licensure. These include:

  • Clinical social worker
  • Clinical therapist
  • Clinician
  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Mental health counselor
  • Mental health therapist
  • Substance abuse disorder psychologist
  • Substance abuse therapist


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Substance abuse social worker skills

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed the NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Clients with Substance Use Disorders, a prerequisite for any social worker seeking to specialize in this focus area. This guide outlines 12 standards to establish expectations for substance abuse social workers:

  • Accurate record-keeping
  • Advocacy
  • Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Cultural competence
  • Decision making
  • Intervention skills
  • Leadership
  • Professional development
  • Professional ethics and values
  • Sufficient qualifications
  • Workload management skills

In addition to the NASW standards, hard and soft skills are also required to succeed in this challenging role. Necessary soft skills include:

  • Active listening
  • Compassion
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Oral and written communication
  • Patience
  • Problem solving
  • Service orientation
  • Time management

Social workers typically acquire and develop essential hard skills through higher education and hands-on experience with clients.

Substance abuse social worker training

A bachelor’s degree in social work can open doors to entry- and mid-level roles in some areas of social work practice, including substance abuse social work. More senior roles or clinical positions prefer or require a master’s degree. An MSW is an excellent launchpad for social workers seeking those positions.

Getting into an MSW program first requires completing a bachelor’s degree program. It does not have to be a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). However, a BSW will expedite your MSW by qualifying you for advanced standing that places you out of foundational courses. Make sure that your MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Many MSW programs provide flexible on-campus, online, full-time, and part-time learning opportunities. Flexible options can be especially helpful to working professionals looking to fit degree study into their busy work schedules. Full-time students can complete an MSW in two years (or less if they qualify for advanced standing); part-time students typically require three or more years.

MSW programs prepare prospective substance abuse social workers through generalist courses and electives or focus areas that complement their MSW core curriculum. For example, Tulane University offers a Mental Health, Addiction, and Family Focus Area. Other schools that provide substance abuse focus areas include Temple University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Louisville.

MSW programs also prepare future substance abuse social workers with field placements that apply their learning through hands-on, supervised work experiences.

Upon completing your MSW program, you must apply to take the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) social work licensing exam to earn your social work license. Additional licensure requirements vary by state. Many substance abuse social positions also require passing the exam to earn the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credential.

You can confirm your mastery in substance abuse social work with credentials like the Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) provided by the NASW. This credential is open to MSW degree holders with a clinical social work license, at least two years of post-MSW clinical experience, and at least 180 hours of relevant professional continuing education. The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) also offers an inventory of credentials for aspiring addiction counselors.

How much do substance abuse social workers earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national average substance abuse social worker earn an average annual income of $57,800. The highest 10 percent earn average incomes of at least $97,300; the lowest ten percent make less than $31,010. Salary ranges vary based on education, experience, industry, and location.

Let’s start with education. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to enter the field; a master’s degree can deliver higher salaries. In addition, earning certifications can increase your marketability among employers seeking advanced expertise. According to the NASW, social workers with an MSW earn $13,000 more than their peers who hold only a BSW.

Your experience can also aid in negotiating higher salaries. Glassdoor estimates the following base salaries depending on experience:

  • 0–1 years of experience: $51,198
  • 1–3 years of experience: $54,012
  • 4–6 years of experience: $57,998
  • 7–9 years of experience: $62,058
  • 10–14 years of experience: $68,274
  • 15+ years of experience: $77,927

Top-paying industries for substance abuse social workers include:

  • Specialty hospitals (excluding psychiatric and substance abuse): $81,870
  • Offices of other health practitioners: $72,840
  • Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities: $71,250
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: $70,440
  • Insurance carriers: $69,690

Industries with the highest concentration of employment for substance abuse social workers include outpatient care centers ($57,160), residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities ($44,140), and psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals ($67,520).

Lastly, where you live has a hand in determining your annual salary range. The highest-paying states for substance abuse social workers include:

  • New Jersey: $99,390
  • California: $79,450
  • New York: $75,700
  • District of Columbia: $73,500
  • Connecticut: $71,650

Low-paying states include:

  • Nebraska: $36,150
  • Alabama: $36,680
  • Montana: $40,910
  • Oklahoma: $40,990

The NASW notes that MSW degree holders earn higher salaries in large cities or urban areas. Some of the top-paying metropolitan areas for substance abuse social workers (primarily in the Pacific region) that make well over the national average wage include:

  • Napa, CA: $112,950
  • San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA: $97,950
  • Vallejo-Fairfield, CA: $94,060
  • Hanford-Corcoran, CA: $89,650
  • Santa Rosa, CA: $88,870

Are you cut out to be a substance abuse social worker?

Substance abuse social workers serve at the front lines of communities to aid those struggling with addictions. Box office movies may give you a glimpse into the role of these professionals, but you won’t truly understand the job until you’re doing it. It can be emotionally draining work. You will need deep resolve and a solid self-care regimen to sustain a career in this field.

The demand for substance abuse social workers continues to rise, with projected job growth for substance abuse, behavioral, and mental health counselors growing at a 22 percent rate, more than three times the rate of the job market as a whole. That equates to an estimated 43,600 job openings per year through 2031.

Many social workers in this field feel a personal calling. Perhaps someone close to them—a family member or friend—had a substance abuse problem. Perhaps they even succumbed to it. Or maybe the social worker themselves fought and overcame substance abuse. Others see the need and truly want to help. One thing is for sure: this is not a field for the half-hearted. Enter this profession only if you truly have a passion to help the substance abuse population.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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