Common Issues a Substance Abuse Social Worker Faces (And How to Handle Them)

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Apr 15, 2019

Apr 15, 2019 • by Rebecca Smith

The opioid epidemic is a real problem in North America.  In 2017, an estimated 4,000 Canadians died of an opioid overdose.

According to The Lancet Public Health, this is why politicians are pushing for an increase in mental health care, greater access to treatment services, more overdose prevention sites, and the decriminalization of personal possession of drugs.

The creation of a plan to help end this epidemic means an increased need for substance abuse social workers.

While social work can be a rewarding career, it's also tiresome working with substance abuse clients. Thus, it's important to know the issues facing mental health clinicians working in this field.

Issues Impacting Substance Abuse Social Workers

Social workers work in a wide array of locations serving a diverse population. However, the mental health and substance abuse social worker handles intense situations as people try to become healthy.

Higher stakes await social workers and mental health clinicians handling clients who are in need of drug rehab. The victim may be dealing with mental health disorders, which puts them at risk of suicide.

Here are some key problems a substance abuse social worker will face while working in the field:

  • Confidentiality
  • Self-determination
  • Pressure to fix a client
  • Burnout

Knowing the risks of this field and how to combat the issues will help you to remain a healthy, productive employee and keep the client's best interest at hand.


Canada's equivalent of the American HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Unlike HIPAA which is used to protect a person's health information, PIPEDA protects all personal information.

You want your client to feel comfortable disclosing their private information. So be sure to abide by your agency's confidentiality guidelines to ensure your client's diagnosis and disclosed information doesn't become public knowledge.

If you have any concerns or questions communicate them to your supervisor. It's better to ask than to keep a potential mistake hidden.


Social workers want to enable clients to reach their full potential and reduce the stress of the current chaos. But sometimes this means allowing someone to make their own decisions which may not have their best interest in mind.

When a client doesn't want to stop using, you cannot force them to do so. A person will only change if they want to get clean. But what you can do is be supportive and not blame yourself if treatment does not work.

Allowing a client to do what they want comes with the job.

Pressure to Fix a Client

Social work and substance abuse can put pressure on the clinician to "fix" the client. Yet, you cannot fix someone. A person must be willing to face their addiction and want help. 

The client's support system must see treatment with realistic expectations and not as an easy fix.

This is why it's important to express concerns or issues with your supervisor. You do not want to suffer in silence if you feel the client's friends or family want overnight results. Not only will this make your job unnecessarily difficult but it can also lead to burning out.


When completing your social work degree, you will learn that burnout rates in this field are high. When you're burned out, you feel fatigued, lose compassion for your clients, constantly think about work, and don't have patience. 

To combat burn out, you must implement self-care into your routine. Self-care makes sure you are putting your needs first and allowing your body and mind to rest. Ways to practice self-care include:

  • Eat healthy foods and sleep for at least 8 hours
  • Create boundaries with clients, co-workers, and loved ones
  • Schedule alone time
  • Leave work at the office
  • Use your PTO
  • Talk to someone you trust.

If you practice these helpful tips, then you will be better equipped to service your clients.

Wrap Up

The field can be tough for a substance abuse social worker. But, it can bring the reward of a client making progress towards getting clean and putting their life back together.

Once you learn the issues facing mental health clinicians in this field of social work, you can use the suggestions on how to handle them. You don't have to struggle alone.

For more information on social work and available positions, explore our website.