Newswise — Social workers are trained to help clients with drug and alcohol problems, but that does not mean they are immune from the problems themselves.

Twelve percent of social workers in a recent study were at serious risk of alcohol or drug abuse, according to Florida State University Social Work Professor Darcy Siebert, and 25 percent were at moderate risk. Siebert surveyed 751 social workers in North Carolina about alcohol and drug use as well as depression, burnout and other occupational concerns. The study, published in the journal Health & Social Work, was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"Drug misuse actually is very low in this sample, but these social workers report drinking at higher rates than other helping professionals and the general public," she said. Siebert found that 28 percent of the social workers reported binge drinking during the preceding year and 21 percent had used drugs illegally since becoming a social worker. Marijuana was the drug social workers most commonly reported using.

In comparison, the most recent National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that 5.6 percent of the total population were heavy drinkers. Surveys of other helping professionals found that 16 percent of nurses reported binge drinking in the past year and 17 percent of physicians thought they were drinking too much.

Of the 12 percent of social workers at serious risk of alcohol or drug abuse, Siebert found that 34 percent said that alcohol use, drug use or a mental health problem caused at least one negative professional consequence, and 39 percent agreed that they had worked when too distressed to be effective.

"These data suggest that social workers' alcohol and other drug use can result in diminished work performance, which can have negative implications for both the social workers and their clients," Siebert said. "When impairment is accompanied by denial, the consequences could be problematic and protracted."

Denial is a characteristic defense mechanism among people with alcohol or drug issues, and the social workers in this study were no exception. Only9 percent of those at serious risk said they had a problem with alcohol or other drugs; 28 percent of them said they either had recovered or were in recovery despite the fact that they had been drinking extensively or using drugs in the preceding few weeks.

Those findings were not surprising to Siebert, who said that although social workers are trained to recognize when a client is in denial, it may be hard for them to recognize it in themselves.

"They belong to a profession that demands very high personal and professional standards of behavior, and their clients count on them to be models of helpfulness," Siebert said. "Social workers strive to meet these standards, which makes it very difficult for them to identify or admit when they have problems with alcohol or drugs. This poses a risk for their clients."

Siebert is encouraging the national social work professional organizations to address drug and alcohol misuse among social workers and to sponsor comprehensive assistance programs for its members. Professional organizations for physicians, nurses and pharmacists - three caregiving professions whose members also seem to be particularly vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse - have established these types of programs and could serve as models for the social work profession. "Our social workers do very difficult work helping others, but there may be times when they need assistance for themselves," Siebert said. "We don't have enough trained social workers as it is. To lose them to addiction would be a terrible thing because it's treatable."

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Health and Social Work