The cost of substance abuse in America is incalculable in its human toll; economically, it causes losses of about $190 billion a year. The problems are pervasive; and most clinical social workers know, from their own professional experience, the difficulty of achieving success (however measured) in this arena. Five years ago, acknowledging these difficulties and the vast impact on society, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the sbirtNational Academy of Sciences, called for community-based screenings for health risk behaviors, including substance use.

In response, the federal Department of Health and Human Services authorized its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) to develop an experimental program, SBIRT (Screening Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment), to help professionals identify and intervene early with at-risk clients—if possible, at a point before they become dependent.

In the field, it has been found that a clinical social worker, using SBIRT as a brief screening tool in five minutes of Q&A, can identify whether a client is at-risk from either drinking or drug use. Going forward in the first session of an intervention, the clinical social worker may provide health education, simple advice, motivational counseling, help with an action plan, or a referral for treatment. This on-the-spot diagnosis and assistance is often critical in helping people who suffer from substance use disorders. Although SBIRT is not a treatment, it can be used to help clients with serious alcohol and substance-use problems to follow through on treatment referrals. And it works: SAMHSA has found that, after receiving SBIRT-based help, 41% of respondents reported abstaining from drugs and/or alcohol—six months after receiving the intervention.

Next week, we will take a closer look at SBIRT and why a clinical social worker should take the training.



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