Abstract: (see Poster Gallery) It's Complicated: Contextualizing Substance Use in Social Work Education (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

439P (see Poster Gallery) It's Complicated: Contextualizing Substance Use in Social Work Education

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Stephanie Sarabia, PhD, Associate Professor, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Mahwah, NJ
Background and Purpose:

Academic requirements for alcohol and drug counseling licensure are focused on acquiring clinical, content knowledge that reflects our culture’s weight on a more simplistic, personal responsibility view of substance use. This contrasts a more complex and contextualized person in the environment framework which also encompasses a society’s responsibility to its citizens. Social work education requires viewing a person in the context of their environment with the imperative of including such factors as marginalization and structural inequality, as we approach addressing substance use issues.

The objective of this study is to understand the impact of designing a substance use elective course with the intent of contextualizing substance use content knowledge by modeling a structured critical lens in a recovery ecosystem framework. Using additional resources alongside traditional substance use content knowledge, students are taught to challenge the dominant narrative and oversimplified views of substance use fleshing out the complexity of risk factors and a recovery ecosystem. In addition to understanding the experience of students learning substance use content that is contextualized, the study also aims to understand how this shift impacts their approach to working with people who use substances.


A qualitative survey was conducted of MSW students enrolled in multiple sections (both virtually and in-person) of an elective course granting academic requirements for state licensure in alcohol and drug counseling. Students were asked to complete an anonymous survey via Qualtrics and their narrative responses were coded using NVIVO qualitative software to determine themes.


Data analysis reveals that participants reported a thorough understanding of the societal contributing risk factors to developing a substance use issue and how these factors also serve as barriers to recovery. In addition, the complexity of the societal factors was noted and how society puts more emphasis on personal responsibility than society’s responsibility to its citizens. Participants stated that they thought more critically about substance use and how the class helped them see injustice that was in plain sight that they failed to notice before.

Participants reported that their learning altered their approach to working with substance using clients in two significant ways: a deeper commitment to a compassionate, nonjudgmental, person-centered stance and a contextualized, complex view of substance use that fostered a nuanced person in environment view that encouraged advocacy along with clinical interventions.

Conclusions and Implications:

Findings underscore the importance of contextualizing substance use using a more complex, person in environment framework to recalibrate the balance between personal responsibility and society’s responsibility to its citizens. Using this model, students demonstrated a commitment to integrated practice that brought a deeper commitment to a nonjudgmental, compassionate, person-centered stance and a contextualized, person in environment view that embraced advocacy and macro practice alongside micro practice.