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Can social workers impact teen substance abuse? Hear about the caretakers on the frontlines

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

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The potential causes of teen substance abuse are numerous. Some teens experiment with illicit drugs and/or alcohol due to social pressures to fit in. Some go down this path out of a desire to find a release from depression or anxiety. Some opt to use certain drugs to improve academic or athletic performance while others fall victim to substance abuse due to its presence in their upbringing.

In fact, recent research has asserted that substance abuse prevention for some adolescents should begin in early childhood, as children of parents with substance abuse issues are at a much greater risk for developing similar disorders.

But causation and preventative measures aside, just as much conversation surrounds the question of how we can help teens who are already in the trenches of substance abuse or addiction — or, more pointedly, who can have the greatest impact on these teens from a professional standpoint.

Should we rely on physicians and on teachers? What if we shift our focus toward social workers?

The truth is, there is no one type of professional upon whom the responsibility should fall. "I really don't think it matters all that much what academic or clinical specialty a [professional] has so much as it matters that they are genuinely engaged, personable and committed," explains Christopher Gerhart, licensed and certified substance abuse counselor. He cites a statement once made by a client of his that continues to inform and shape his practice: It is more important to have someone see me through than it is to have someone see through me.

Social workers, however, are unlike many professionals in that they are trained to identify and assess the needs of their clients beyond the scope of the initial issue presented. Join us as we dig into the facts surrounding teen substance abuse and explore the different types of social workers who can make an impact.

The truth about teen substance abuse

While promising statistics suggest a general decline in recent years, teen substance abuse is still prevalent. Consider the following 2016 findings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual Monitoring the Future survey:

• 33.2% of 12th graders and 19.9% of 10th graders reported past-month alcohol consumption.

• 22.5% of 12th graders and 14% of 10th graders reported past-month marijuana use.

• 6.7% of 12th graders reported past-year use of amphetamines.

• 4.9% of 12th graders reported past-year misuse of over-the-counter tranquilizers.

• 4.8% of 12th graders reported past-year misuse of opioids other than heroin.

• 4.3% of 12th graders reported past-year use of illicit hallucinogens.

• 3.5% of 12th graders reported past-year use of synthetic marijuana (often referred to as Spice or K2.)

3 types of social workers who can make a difference

The key to truly helping teens who have fallen victim to substance abuse is getting them access to mental health resources, according to Trey Dyer, business and partner relations specialist for DrugRehab.com. "There is no one individual who can take responsibility to identify substance abuse among teens," he says. "However, the people who spend considerable amounts of time with the students can potentially take a more proactive approach in preventing substance abuse by referring struggling students to mental health professionals."

The truth is, substance abuse is considered one of the most difficult problems to detect, since people are often secretive about their drug or alcohol use. Social workers — within any specialty or work environment — face an initial task of performing a comprehensive assessment on a client, considering any possible signs of substance abuse even if it is not self-reported. In properly recognizing the warning signs, social workers can then suggest a course of intervention and treatment.

With that in mind, the following three types of social workers are among the most prominent in the field who would likely come into contact with affected teens. Read on to learn about the traits and duties specific to each.

1. Mental health & substance abuse social workers

One of the most prominent types of social workers who can make a lasting impact on the problem of teen substance abuse are mental health and substance abuse social workers. These professionals work with clients who live with mental health struggles and/or addiction — a pairing many assert is more often in the territory of "and" than "or."

That is to say, those afflicted with addiction tend to have co-occurring underlying mental health issues that must be addressed. It's also true that in clients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example, rates of substance abuse are well above the norm. Social workers are often trained to effectively address co-occurring disorders like these.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers are typically master's-qualified clinical social workers who are trained to provide psychotherapy, to act as case managers for individuals with a complex range of needs, to act as discharge planners in a hospital setting and to facilitate long-term intervention with setbacks like relapses in mind. Social workers in this realm can also specialize in assisting aging parents who have spent years caring for now-adult children with mental illness.

These professionals can work in a wide range of environments, including hospitals, residential treatment centers, health clinics, private practices and social service organizations.

2. School social workers

School social workers dedicate their professional lives specifically to the well-being of our young students. While teachers focus on developing the intellectual skills of students, social workers in this sphere hone in on the students' social and emotional wellbeing. School social workers act as a bridge between the home environment and the school community, at times also providing services to the academic personnel and parents to help promote and support students' overall success.

These professionals are trained not only in intervention strategies, but also in identifying the source of behavioral conflicts in students. They help staff and parents better understand risk factors that may lead students down the road of substance abuse. They can also familiarize these parties with the necessary resources or external programs to help students when needed.

School social workers can also play a large role in substance abuse prevention by assisting in the development and implementation of educational programs on the topic. For example, we know that children who are diagnosed with ADHD are at an elevated risk of later developing a substance use disorder. These school social work positions typically require a bachelor's degree in the field, though many school social workers go on to earn a master's degree.

3. Child & family social workers

Social workers who focus on children and families will maintain many of the same duties as school social workers, however they work directly with children and families, often conducting in-home assessments. This realm of social work accounts for approximately 28 percent of the country's half a million social workers.

Many child and family social workers will be assigned to child welfare cases to be sure the needs of children are being met amidst an array of factors that often represent a decreased level of care for our most vulnerable little citizens. These factors can include poverty, homelessness, addiction, child abuse and neglect.

Child and family social workers are equipped with a wide range of tools to help children and their families better cope with the life stresses that present themselves, often addressing larger systematic problems. Some of the duties within this scope include counseling families to determine more effective solutions to the problems they're facing; assisting parents in finding and maintaining employment and adequate housing; helping children and families make the best use of the welfare system; assisting all parties in adoption processes; and, if the situation calls for it, placing children in loving homes that can better meet their needs.

Entry-level child and family social work positions typically require a bachelor's degree, while many of these professionals opt for a master's in social work.

Could you make a difference?

If you're looking for resources or direct assistance regarding teen substance abuse, social workers are highly qualified to provide you with just that. But if you have a desire to dedicate your career to making a lasting impact in this realm, social work could be the perfect path for you!

Social work is a versatile field that won't limit you to working on one specific cause throughout the lifespan of your career. In fact, there's a multitude of different types of social workers out there, all of whom make notable differences in their communities. Learn more by visiting our article, "Social work superheroes: 8 types of social workers who make a difference."

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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