Opioids are ravaging our nation, but the opioid crisis is just one symptom of a broader epidemic of social problems. People who live with depression or anxiety are twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse – and Americans are showing more signs of depression than they have in decades.
To address our nation’s drug abuse crisis, we must address the social problems fueling it. Law enforcement alone can’t do that. Neither can the medical community.
Social workers can. They possess a skill set that’s unique in our public health system, one that focuses on addressing people’s health needs holistically.
Unfortunately, our leaders have historically ignored social workers’ efforts fighting for the vulnerable. That needs to change, as social workers are our best hope for tackling the opioid epidemic.
According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the share of overdose deaths involving heroin tripled between 2010 and 2015. Columbus, Ohio, was hit by 27 heroin overdoses in a single day last fall. A town in West Virginia experienced the same thing – in just four hours.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Drugs are now the leading cause of accidental death in America, surpassing even guns and car accidents.
Drug abuse is often linked to poor mental health, and mental illness is even more prevalent than drug abuse. This year, 1 in 4 U.S. adults will struggle with a mental disorder, including depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Military personnel and veterans are at particular risk.
Social workers can lead the fight to conquer these public health problems. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s almost 650,000 social workers specialize in mental health. Another 13 percent focus on child welfare and family issues.
Most have also completed advanced training. Four in 5 social workers have a master’s degree, for which they must complete at least 900 hours of field work. That hands-on experience lets them help prevent broader public health problems, and to intervene with individuals.
Social workers are a crucial part of our nation’s public health infrastructure. One study of almost 80 research trials found that combining primary medical care and mental health care from a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or case manager improved patient outcomes for two years following the start of treatment.
Only doctors can prescribe methadone, which helps wean addicts off opiates and can cut relapse rates by as much as 80 percent. But social workers can support doctors’ efforts with community-based addiction programs, which have been proven to reduce hospital visits and reduce patients’ medical costs.
With this track record of effectiveness – and no shortage of public health challenges – it’s no wonder that the job market for mental health and substance abuse social workers will grow at twice the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Millions of Americans and their families are suffering at the hands of drug addiction and mental illness. Policymakers at all levels of government must recognize that the contributions of social workers will be crucial if we’re to tackle these public health challenges.
Angelo McClain is CEO of the National Association of Social Workers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.