Question: Are there any online MSW programs in mental health and substance abuse?

Answer: Yes, there are online MSW programs with specializations or sub-specializations in mental health and substance abuse. In general, these programs tend to focus on clinical social work concepts, principles, and methodologies, and their application in working with individuals suffering from mental and emotional health disturbances and/or addictive behaviors.

Prospective online MSW students who are interested in working with individuals suffering from mental health challenges and/or substance abuse have a variety of programs that can help them prepare for this impactful career. Social workers who serve populations suffering from substance abuse and mental or emotional health disturbances must have knowledge of clinical therapeutic modalities that empower their patients to take control of their addictive and self-destructive behaviors. They must also have the knowledge to advocate for their patients within larger medical and behavioral health systems. Online MSW programs in mental health and substance abuse can be categorized into three different types:

  • Online MSW Programs with a Specialization in Substance Abuse and Mental Health: These programs have a formal specialization in Substance Abuse and/or Mental Health, and entail the completion of a prescribed number of specialization courses that cover essential and advanced topics in clinical social work with populations suffering from substance addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental and emotional disturbances.
  • Online MSW Programs with a Sub-Specialization in Substance Abuse and/or Mental Health: These programs may have a specialization in a field that is broader than but still incorporates substance abuse and mental health—for example, MSW programs in Clinical Social Work and Adult Mental Health and Wellness might offer a sub-specialization or track in Substance Abuse, Mental Health, or a related area such as anxiety disorders or working with military personnel and veterans.
  • Online MSW Programs with Electives in Substance Abuse and Mental Health: These programs do not have a formal specialization or sub-specialization in Substance Abuse and/or Mental Health, but nevertheless offer electives in these areas for students to prepare for work with populations experiencing substance addictions and/or mental health problems. There are numerous programs in this category, from online advanced generalist MSW programs to online clinical social work MSW programs.

An example of an online MSW program in substance abuse and mental health is Simmons University’s Online MSW Program with a Specialized Course of Study in Mental Health and Addictions. This program offers courses in areas such as social work practice with clients struggling with alcohol and/or drug use, group work with diverse populations, and diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illnesses.

Examples of programs that do not have a formal specialization in substance abuse but which have classes in this field as well as extensive courses in mental health services for children, adults, and families include USC’s Online MSW Program with a specialization in Adult Mental Health and Wellness, and The Ohio State University’s Online Master of Social Work with electives such as its Integrative Seminar on Mental Health & Substance Abuse.

Curriculum for Online MSW Programs in Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Online MSW programs in Mental Health and Substance Abuse equip students with knowledge of human psychology and behavior, advanced clinical therapeutic modalities, and an understanding of the broader substance abuse treatment and mental health service systems at the local, state, and federal levels. These programs typically feature courses in areas such as advanced clinical assessments, cognitive behavioral therapy and other modalities that reduce harm and empower patients, trauma and its impact on mental health and substance use, and social justice advocacy, among others. In addition, these programs might have courses that focus specifically on key demographics that experience acute mental health or substance abuse challenges, such as members of the military and veterans, victims of domestic abuse, and people with severe anxiety disorders.

Below is a sample chart outlining the program requirements for an MSW program in substance abuse and mental health. Please note that these program requirements are for informational purposes only, and are not meant to exactly represent an existing MSW program.

Curriculum ComponentExample Courses and Field Education Requirements
Core Courses
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Foundational Methods and Theories of Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Research
  • Mental Health Care Systems and Institutions in the United States
Concentration Courses
  • Advanced Methodologies in Clinical Social Work
  • Substance Abuse Treatment in Social Work Practice
  • Trauma, Mental Health, and Addiction
  • Social Work Practice for Social Justice
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Substance Abuse
Elective Courses
  • Neurobiology in Clinical Social Work Practice
  • Cases of Severe Mental Illness
Field Education Requirements
  • Foundational Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar
  • Advanced Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar

Courses for online MSW programs in mental health and substance abuse may include but are not limited to:

  • Advanced Methodologies in Clinical Social Work: Students learn to build their professional identities as clinical social workers and to master effective and empathetic methods of engaging, evaluating, and treating clients in need of support for mental, emotional, and behavioral health challenges. Students also learn advanced clinical assessment skills and the use of acute and ongoing client interventions.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment in Social Work Practice: In this course, students examine the causes, progression, and treatment of various substance use disorders, including abuse of alcohol and drugs. They learn different theories and models of treatment, including harm reduction techniques, the traditional disease model, psychotherapy, motivational interviewing, and inpatient and outpatient medical treatment, and referrals to support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
  • Trauma, Mental Health, and Addiction: This course focuses on the key theories around trauma, mental health, and substance abuse, and how they overlap in different client situations and treatment contexts. Students build off of the person-in-environment framework they learned in their foundational coursework in order to take a comprehensive and holistic view of how clients’ substance use challenges originate and develop, and the social worker’s role in helping them address these challenges on multiple fronts.
  • Social Work Practice for Social Justice: This course connects issues of social justice and social inequality to incidence of substance abuse and mental/behavioral health challenges. Inequity in social and political systems and their contributions to the higher incidence of substance use amongst certain demographics are major topics of discussion. Students also examine the role that clinical social workers have in advocating for vulnerable populations.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Substance Abuse: Students learn how to use various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients develop their problem solving abilities, target negative or self-sabotaging thought patterns, and build off of their existing strengths. Cognitive behavioral therapy theory and practice are discussed in contexts of individual therapy, dyads, and family and group work.
  • Neurobiology in Clinical Social Work Practice: Students study the interplay between human neurobiological development across the lifespan and the formation of early and later familial and social attachments. Concepts in interpersonal communication, attachment theory and other relationship theories/models, and the science behind the development of the brain are integrated to provide students an understanding of the foundations of child and adult mental illness, coping behaviors, and relationship negotiations and difficulties.

Field Education for Online MSW Programs in Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Online MSW programs in mental health and substance abuse typically require students to complete one or both of their field practicums in a setting that is related to mental health support and addictions diagnosis and treatment. One of the primary objectives of the social work profession is supporting and advocating for the mental and emotional health of individuals within the context of their familial, sociocultural, and professional environments. As such, social work practicum sites that focus on mental health are fairly prevalent nationwide, and include not only child and family welfare agencies, but also outpatient behavioral health care centers, community health centers, hospitals, military counseling organizations, and substance abuse treatment facilities, just to name a few. However, depending on where they live in the United States, students of online MSW programs might find it difficult to locate a suitable mental health-focused practicum site near where they live.

Practicum settings that focus on substance abuse treatment might be more difficult to locate and obtain due to the fact that this field is a more niche sub-area within the larger field of mental health care. Examples of places where students might complete their practicums to gain experience working with individuals suffering from substance addictions include but are not limited to VA hospitals, substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation centers, and youth counseling programs.

Online MSW programs differ in terms of how they handle students’ field education placements. Some programs actively match students with organizations and supervisors for their practicums. These programs consult with students in order to determine their academic and professional goals, and then try to connect them with social work sites near them that align with these goals. Other programs require students to arrange their field practicum sites/supervisors independently, which means students must research prospective practicum sites, reach out to potential supervisors at these sites, and then interview with these prospective supervisors. Regardless of how their program manages the practicum placement process, students of online MSW programs in mental health and substance abuse should proactively connect with their program’s field education director and staff to discuss the learning objectives for their field education. For more information on field education for online MSW programs, including more insight into the practicum matching process used by different programs, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.