Social Workers' Role in Ending the Opioid Epidemic

We are a nation in crisis. And police, insurers, and patients are all looking to social workers for help in curbing the opioid epidemic.

Opioid deaths now surpass gun violence and car crash deaths, according to CDC data published by the Washington Post, leaving police no choice but to rethink their strategy, as law enforcement is not working. Police are responding to 9-1-1 calls from the same homes, arresting repeat offenders. So who are they looking to for tips? Social workers.

In the fight to end the opioid epidemic, social workers are becoming the go-to resource for best practices. Insurers, police, and patients alike are seeking their comprehensive grasp of the issue and understanding of human behavior within social institutions to mitigate this opioid crisis that is taking 91 lives a day in the United States.

Support is key to recovery and requires clinicians, researchers, social workers, law enforcement, and health insurance providers to work together to solve the growing crisis. By prioritizing prevention—and taking a few pages from the social worker’s book of empathy—we can reduce not only overdoses and fatalities but addiction in the first place.

Understanding the crisis

In order to tackle the crisis, we must first understand the cause, and it’s not simple. Stress, depression, anxiety, and even boredom can contribute to a spiral of addiction. In many depressed rural areas, these drugs are so easily accessible due to overprescribing and diversion, they’ve become the new normal, “like drinking beer,” says one resident of a plagued Ohio town. In other cases, patients were prescribed opioids for a serious injury and never properly weaned off.

For those suffering from substance use disorder, treatment is the only option for recovery. And many opioid abusers are in need of both mental and physical healthcare. Connecting them to treatment facilities focused on teaching healthier behaviors and providing important individual and family counseling is an invaluable asset of the social worker.


Incorporating social workers into the care team

Massachusetts—a state with a particularly acute opioid problem—is setting a new standard, with several health insurance companies incorporating social workers into the treatment chain. The American Society of Addiction Medicine Magazine highlights the groundbreaking work of CeltiCare Health, which established a three-tiered approach to fight the epidemic:

  1. Identify opioid abusers
  2. Get them treatment and help them maintain recovery
  3. Work with prescribers to reduce the number of opioids available and divertible

A lot goes into these steps, and social workers can play a pivotal role in each. With a deep understanding of treatment options and an overall calling to help patients in dire situations, they can provide not only the encouragement to seek and get treatment, but also help determining the right level of care, access to facilities, and support throughout.

By keeping addicts out of hospitals and into treatment, insurance companies benefit as well. Working closely with social workers to reach out to addicts in need early, they can avoid big hospital bills—a top concern, especially for CeltiCare, whose hospital intakes are one-quarter substance abuse cases.

Working with families

Substance abuse can have a serious impact on a family. The social worker’s role is to support them in their support of an addicted member. But often, addiction runs deep, affecting many members of a family. And children of substance abuse are more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves. It’s important first that children have a safe place to go. Social workers can be the link between neglected children and safe shelters.

Social workers can also help families and close friends by providing access to training on how to properly use naloxone, the lifesaving drug that stops an overdose in its tracks. While earlier intervention is ideal, this last resort successfully reversed 26,463 overdoses between 1996 and 2014 thanks to community programs administering kits to laypeople, like the Take Home Naloxone program, according to CDC research.

Driving policy discussion and action

Guiding addicts toward treatment is critical to improving health, but to prevent the prevalence of opioid abuse in the first place, the opioid supply available for diversion must be greatly reduced and pharmacists must be held to appropriate and responsible prescribing laws. This is where the crisis needs regulation on its side. By spurring policy discussion with stakeholders, from healthcare and pharmaceutical professionals to law enforcement and the secretary of health, social workers can help.

In Massachusetts, a bill was passed to limit a patient’s supply of pain medications to 15 days, which was recently further reduced to 7 days. Before patients can receive another prescription, they must enter an agreement with their prescriber about risk and diversion. Overdose victims are also required to receive professional evaluation within 24 hours after hospitalization. If social workers advocate more loudly to implement such laws more widely, it could have a serious impact on the epidemic.

Promoting alternative treatments for chronic pain

Many people who fall prey to opioid addiction were first prescribed it by their doctor after a severe injury. One of the saddest realities that has propelled this national crisis is the fact that many physicians have neglected to consider alternative treatments to chronic pain—including ones with proven effectiveness—due to pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to push drugs. However, there are several ways those suffering can deal with chronic pain without filling another prescription. Working in healthcare settings, social workers can intervene.

Physical therapy is a practical and proven post-trauma path toward physical recovery, especially when practiced with regularity. Similarly, yoga is known to have healing properties, stretching troubled muscles and bringing individuals a sense of calm and peace. Even massage and regular exercise can contribute to mind-body health for chronic sufferers.

By considering and promoting these alternative paths to recovery, working with policymakers for appropriate prescribing, and guiding addicts to treatment facilities, social workers can help loosen the opioid epidemic’s grip on a hurting nation.

If you are interested in pursuing your Master’s in Social Work, or even if you’re simply interested in discussing the program, please reach out to an Enrollment Counselor at (207) 221-4143 or via email at You can also download our program brochure for more information:

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