What does a drug and alcohol worker do?
Drug and alcohol workers (also known as substance misuse workers) help people tackle and recover from their dependence on illegal, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, alcohol or solvents.
This role involves helping clients to access services such as counselling, healthcare and education. This job could vary widely, depending on personal interests and qualifications, and could include:
- outreach work – visiting substance users and helping with immediate needs, such as temporary accommodation
- drop-in centre work – talking to clients about their needs and finding ways of supporting them towards recovery
- counselling and rehabilitation – giving support and dealing with the causes of substance misuse
- arrest referral work – supporting clients arrested for drug-related offences
- education and training – helping clients access services to help them with reading, writing, maths, computer and job-search skills
- healthcare – working as a specialist nurse in an addiction clinic, prescribing medication and supervising detox programmes
- advocacy – helping clients to use housing, employment and healthcare services
- needle exchange – providing clean sharps and giving advice on how to use substances safely and reduce harm to self and society
- prison 'CARAT' work – Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare in prisons and remand centres, including support with detox programmes
- youth work – giving emotional support and help with education, employment and training
In some jobs, this role may cover several of these areas or specialise in a particular one.
The role may also include other tasks, such as carrying out risk assessments, designing training and care programmes, as well as providing ongoing support for clients while they deal with their substance misuse issues.
What do I need to do to become a drug and alcohol worker?
You may come into this work from a variety of backgrounds, such as nursing, criminal justice, social care, youth work or counselling. For example, you may have dealt with drug or alcohol-dependent patients as a nurse, or worked in the probation service dealing with offenders after their release.
If you have personal experience of addiction or dependency you could also apply for this type of work, as applications are usually welcome from people who have been through treatment successfully.
Volunteering is an excellent way to gain relevant experience, make contacts and eventually find paid work. It gives the employer a chance to see your skills and motivation, and lets you decide whether this is the career for you. Most drug and alcohol support organisations offer volunteering opportunities and training. You can find volunteering opportunities by contacting local substance misuse organisations.
Employers often ask for between six months and two years’ relevant experience, whether paid or unpaid, and the ability to work with vulnerable people. Employers may sometimes ask for professional qualifications in social work, nursing or counselling, depending on the job.
You can also enter this profession as a support worker with few qualifications, providing you have enough experience. There are some introductory courses in substance misuse, which may be available at local colleges.
You will need enhanced background checks by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) for most jobs.
Where to find out more
Where could I be working?
Your workplace would depend on your job. In the justice system, you would be based in a prison or remand centre. In outreach work, you would travel around your district, visiting centres and schools. You could also be based at a health centre, residential rehabilitation unit or housing association office.