Social work training needs to include substance misuse

As the government opens its consultation on the next drugs strategy due next March, the challenges for social workers are stark.

Department of Health figures show an estimated one million children in England are affected by their parents’ substance misuse problems, and alcohol is a factor in about half of child protection cases.

Three-quarters of users of drugs services and 85% of alcohol service users have a mental health problem, 60% of suicide attempts are linked to excessive drinking, while the links between substance misuse and domestic violence are well-known. And up to a quarter of older people are thought to have alcohol-related problems.

Such facts may be part of an average day for many social workers, but many experts claim specialist training is inadequate.

The Home Office consultation on the new strategy said training was “vital” and mentioned initiatives to bolster the expertise of health and youth workers. But it failed to mention social workers.

Sarah Galvani, lecturer in social work at Birmingham University, blames this on the failure of policy makers’ to see the extent of social workers’ involvement with people with drug and alcohol problems, particularly as policies tend to be health or criminal justice-led.

While the consultation acknowledges the need for “better social care and support” for people who are entering and leaving treatment, there is “little or no recognition” of social workers’ contribution, Galvani says.

Following concerns that a shortage of a skilled substance misuse workforce would risk the implementation of the 1998 drug strategy, the Department of Health last year published plans to develop training. This included a goal to ensure substance misuse was included in initial training and continuing professional development for social workers.

But Galvani, who has set up a website to provide social workers with information on substance misuse, says anecdotal evidence suggests many social workers still feel “ill-equipped”.

“[Current training] serves only to set up social workers to fail and creates an image of social workers as failing substance users and being ignorant about substance use,” she says. “Without adequate training on these issues their interventions can only be based on ignorance and that is not helpful or confidence-inspiring for either the practitioner or the service users. Nor will it help cement good partnership working.”

Drug and alcohol charity Addaction argues that, as part of the next drugs strategy, drug and alcohol use should form a compulsory part of the social work degree in England, as it does in Scotland.

Hilary Burgess, senior ­lecturer in social work at Bristol University, says it is “unusual” for substance misuse to be taught as a free-standing specialism or module on England’s social work degree course.

“Since there is not a national curriculum as such for the degree, what is available will vary significantly,” she says.

A recent survey of social work programmes by Burgess found substance misuse was taught in a “variety of ways” within other modules including child care and human development, and it was identified as an area “for review and development”.

Simon Shepherd, chief executive of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals, says it is important for social workers to have “at least some basic awareness” of drugs.

“There may be an assumption that general social work training prepares you for dealing with people with substance misuse problems, but it does not and cannot,” he says. “Responding to someone with a crack problem requires knowledge and skills that go beyond general training.”

The British Association of Social Workers, in partnership with Birmingham University and substance misuse charity Aquarius, are setting up a special interest group on alcohol and drugs in social work. People who are interested in finding out more or joining a mailing list for the group should telephone BASW on 0121 622 3911 or e-mail

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Essential information on substance misuse 
U-turn on cannabis highlights lack of logic in ‘war on drugs’

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 Maria Ahmed

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This article appeared in the 9 August issue under the headline “Social workers left out of drugs training equation”

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