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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

substance abuse counselor with patient

Substance abuse counselors experience the rare opportunity to transform people’s lives. While the challenges of this job are extraordinary, the level of job satisfaction is, too, as there are few accomplishments as gratifying as wresting back a life commandeered by addiction. Substance abuse is widespread - there are more than 17 million alcoholics alone in the United States today - and it wreaks havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it.

Substance abuse counselors help addicts with both crisis and long-term management issues that range from finding immediate medical help to preventing a return to addiction on an ongoing basis. Counselors help their clients find housing, employment, medical help, and peer support through groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and assist their clients in navigating public aid systems. An addiction counselor is also available to his or her client for moral support, as the transformative changes that recovery requires can be daunting.

Job Duties

Regardless of work setting, most substance abuse counselors provide essentially the same services. Nearly all of these counselors work firsthand with clients (with the exception of some high-level managers and administrators). Broadly speaking, all counselors are expected to interview and assess clients’ addictions and mental health issues and work with the client to determine the best course of treatment. An effective drug and alcohol counselor will develop treatment plans that benefit the client, the client’s family, and society at large.

Addiction counselors work one-on-one with clients in therapeutic settings, determining the causes and triggers of their alcohol or drug abuse. Together, the client and counselor work to determine a treatment plan that will help the client to get clean or remain drug and alcohol free.

Treatment plans may include:

  • Weekly or bi-weekly therapy appointments
  • Involvement in group therapies such as AA or NA
  • Completion of various recovery “steps” (as in the AA/NA model)
  • Use of drugs such as methadone
  • Behavioral planning

Counselors may also work with a client’s family, romantic partners, or employers to help determine the best behavioral course of action.

In addition, substance abuse counselors provide addiction-prevention resources to the community. Counselors may work in public outreach, informing community members about the risks of substance abuse. This may occur in educational settings; at public libraries or YMCAs; or as part of public events, such as health fairs or parades. Outreach counselors teach individuals how to recognize addiction in their peers and family; how to responsibly use alcohol; and how to navigate public services to obtain addiction treatment.

Workplace Details

Drug and alcohol abuse counselors work in a variety of environments including hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and governmental facilities such as prisons, juvenile detention centers and probation offices. Working hours include days, evenings, nights, and weekends. Jobs are usually full time. Many counselors experience high caseloads and work greater than forty hours per week.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$44450
New York
$50350
Pennsylvania
$42890
Massachusetts
$45520
Florida
$46010

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$38,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$33,360$46,590$81,350
Huntsville$18,730$31,790$52,500

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$48,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$31,200$43,730$58,250

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$38,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$25,150$40,700$62,680
Tuscon$24,800$32,770$52,380

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$34,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$20,890$31,380$57,120
Fort Smith$21,980$29,450$58,460

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$37,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 370

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$21,910$34,880$56,460
San Francisco Bay$28,250$40,880$73,830
San Diego$25,660$37,580$53,490
Sacramento$22,610$31,620$66,270

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$41,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 38%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$26,440$45,570$73,940
Colorado Springs$19,250$34,710$46,830

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$46,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$32,160$46,780$66,230
Bridgeport$30,180$41,710$62,010
New Haven$26,510$46,340$68,270

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$38,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$31,260$38,840$60,560

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$46,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$31,890$53,060$91,410

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$42,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 26%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$23,390$45,520$75,020
Orlando$25,170$39,030$68,430
Tampa$27,630$50,920$73,970
Jacksonville$24,940$39,650$62,510

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$39,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$27,330$40,710$66,420

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$41,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$26,910$39,010$59,920

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$42,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 270

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$25,390$41,020$50,880

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$34,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$24,140$32,570$54,990
Rockford$28,500$37,580$63,110

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$36,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$28,690$37,060$52,160
Fort Wayne$27,790$40,920$56,800

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$37,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$23,540$41,830$70,000
Cedar Rapids$30,800$44,850$63,710

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$35,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$18,070$30,550$53,420
Kansas City$25,980$33,250$50,630

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$34,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 42%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$22,850$29,930$49,120
Lexington$21,870$32,300$50,060

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$34,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $18,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$17,800$31,490$58,520
Baton Rouge$29,340$37,000$58,530
Lafayette$16,760$38,410$58,480

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$42,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$34,620$43,510$49,560
Lewiston$27,090$34,380$43,410

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$42,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$29,690$41,970$61,650
Frederick$23,280$38,440$69,070

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$39,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$26,530$38,780$62,130
Worcester$30,700$53,200$73,320
Springfield$31,570$50,440$62,910

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$37,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$25,930$35,820$54,380
Grand Rapids$35,970$51,040$66,190

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$45,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$34,350$45,460$59,420
Rochester$37,610$44,960$50,710

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$27,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$23,530$28,320$53,660
Gulfport$22,220$27,180$43,430

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$34,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$25,570$37,700$52,750
Kansas City$25,980$33,250$50,630

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$38,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$32,810$45,240$59,990

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$38,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$28,020$38,190$58,290
Lincoln$31,240$38,120$53,810

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$44,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$31,770$43,660$60,740
Reno$31,130$47,220$73,900

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$48,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $37,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $92,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$46,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$34,350$47,290$68,730
Trenton$31,100$50,400$73,740

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$42,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Cruces$22,950$40,800$62,440

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$47,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 430

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$29,470$51,140$76,680
Buffalo$27,420$40,780$59,410
Rochester$31,390$39,550$59,650
Albany$31,760$44,100$56,080

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$42,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$29,830$41,260$61,990
Raleigh$34,420$44,660$55,820
Greensboro$34,360$44,140$58,910
Winston - Salem$27,620$36,150$49,650

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$51,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$41,810$50,920$64,110
Bismarck$42,220$51,400$61,600

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$40,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$29,810$40,930$62,150
Columbus$29,660$45,610$72,890
Cincinnati$27,030$38,680$61,750
Dayton$32,350$44,650$60,370

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$39,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $19,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$26,750$38,570$59,100
Tulsa$17,390$42,510$90,880

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$39,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$30,490$41,930$88,300
Salem$32,970$45,900$61,020

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$40,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 340

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$31,680$43,450$63,080
Pittsburgh$25,490$34,680$55,160
Harrisburg$24,230$37,240$61,500
Allentown$30,810$44,160$63,380

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$37,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$22,370$34,530$49,790

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$36,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $52,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$29,200$39,760$49,730
Columbia$23,140$37,650$56,130
Charleston$24,290$36,940$49,780

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$37,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$27,600$37,330$49,730
Rapid City$28,050$38,870$49,810

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$34,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 39%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$23,840$39,160$58,500
Memphis$26,140$44,900$68,640
Knoxville$20,030$27,810$52,410
Chattanooga$23,970$36,960$57,890

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$37,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$26,260$42,010$60,330
Houston$28,050$37,560$61,530
San Antonio$23,970$36,960$57,890
Austin$27,010$36,530$50,760

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$36,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $17,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 42%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$22,720$40,840$61,870
Ogden$28,050$36,300$53,400

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$50,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$31,760$44,500$67,650

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$42,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$32,460$39,380$62,420
Richmond$31,870$39,400$60,040

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$37,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$23,400$38,560$55,770
Spokane$26,000$35,230$46,250

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$29,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $18,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $42,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$26,130$33,330$44,730
Charleston$24,850$30,950$43,830

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$41,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$24,610$42,010$78,600
Madison$36,370$50,340$95,010

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$45,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Casper$28,180$44,660$61,940

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a drug and alcohol abuse counselor is $42,920. Salaries vary from $25,860 (the median wages of the bottom 10%) to $63,030 (the median salary of the top 10%). Pay is highest for counselors who work in hospitals or who possess advanced degrees, while those who work in residential facilities tend to receive the lowest rate of pay for this job. Counselors who operate private practices or who work in high-end rehabilitation facilities can also earn a higher rate of pay, particularly if they specialize in wealthier clients. This is not the norm, however, as the majority of substance abuse clients are low-income.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in this field to grow by 22% from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than average job growth.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that most employer-provided health plans cover addiction treatment, which has led to a rise in available drug counselor positions in the United States. This, combined with the mandate that all citizens enroll in health insurance, has led experts to project significant growth in the field.

In addition, courts have recognized that offenders sentenced to drug or alcohol rehabilitation rather than jail are less likely to re-offend, contributing to an increased need for substance abuse counselors. This shift from jail time to rehabilitation also reduces the burden of overcrowding in prisons. Many former prison inmates are also recommended or required to enroll in outpatient drug treatment or halfway houses as a condition of their parole or release from prison. For all these reasons, job opportunities in prison, jail, and halfway house positions are expected to rise in the next decade.

Finally, an increasing number of policy makers and local government officials are recognizing the cost-effectiveness of addiction treatment as a method of allaying poverty and preventing crime. In some cities, this has led to increased support and funding for public, non-residential drug treatment programs, including more financial support for group therapy programs and AA. Substance abuse counselors may enjoy job growth in these sectors as well, since they are often the front line in the wars on poverty and crime.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$51140 Per Year

$24.58 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$34880 Per Year

$16.76 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

1

Assess the requirements for the treatment program in which you'd like to work.

Requirements for a job as a substance abuse counselor depend on the hiring agency and the nature of the treatment program. In some settings and treatment programs, counselors may only require a high school diploma and certification, while other programs require a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. A majority of positions require the bachelor’s degree. Counselors with more education will be trusted with less immediate supervision and licensed counselors can provide one-on-one counseling.

Depending on the philosophy of the treatment program, past experience with addiction may be required or seen as beneficial. In drug treatment programs based on an AA or NA framework, for example, the majority of counselors are addicts in recovery, or have firsthand experience with addiction in their personal lives.

2

Attain a high school diploma and training.

In order to enroll in a training program or higher education, complete a high school diploma first. A substance abuse counselor who has a bachelor’s or master’s degree will not likely need any training before beginning in a position. However, those counselors who have only a high school diploma do typically require training, which is often conducted on the job, with the particular clientele the counselor will serve. More seasoned counselors often serve as the primary point of contact with the client, while the counselors-in-training “shadow” them. Training typically covers subjects such as:

  • How to respond to crises
  • How to maintain privacy and confidentiality
  • How to speak to clients and provide services
  • How to perform administrative tasks relevant to the position

3

Complete a bachelor's and/or master's degree.

Increasingly, drug and alcohol counselors are encouraged to pursue a degree with a background in mental health, or obtain some education in psychology or mental health treatment, due to the strong relationship between addiction and other mental health issues.

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4

Decide if you should obtain a license.

In order to operate a private practice, a substance abuse counselor must possess a license – though this is also true of addictions counselors in the majority of public (e.g., prison and social service) counseling sites as well. In most states, licensure requires a master’s degree and 2,000-3,000 hours of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Counselors must also pass a licensing exam in the state where they wish to practice (each state has a unique licensing exam and approval process). Licensing requirements vary from state to state; the National Board for Certified Counselors can provide information about state regulating boards.

Requirements for counselors who do not have a private practice also vary from state to state; in some states a license is still required to provide substance abuse services, while in others supervision is adequate. Information about state licensing boards can be found at the Addiction Technology Transfer Center.

5

Enroll in continuing education courses each year.

In order to maintain a license, counselors must take a fixed number of continuing education classes per year. This ensures that counselors remain up-to-date on the best practices in substance abuse counseling, and expand their skill sets as their careers progress. Examples of common continuing education course topics include: managing client depression, ethics in the client/counselor relationship, responding to client suicidality, substance abuse in teenagers, and addiction treatment for clients with personality disorders.

6

Consider opportunities for advancement.

Overall, the field of addiction counseling offers fewer opportunities for career advancement than those enjoyed in other fields. The majority of counselors work at the treatment level, with salaries and job titles that are fairly static, especially compared to other professions. Career advancement is most likely for counselors who work in hospitals or residential facilities that employ multiple counselors. Counselors can advance to supervisory, management and/or training positions; education, specialized training, years of experience, and a strong rapport with clients and co-workers will determine how far and how fast an addiction counselor advances.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

As an undergraduate who aims to become a substance abuse counselor, you should definitely consider whether you want to be a licensed and privately practicing counselor in the future. If not, then familiarize yourself with your state’s educational requirements for providing substance abuse counseling, as well as the requirements of the local treatment facilities and programs that appeal to you as prospective employers; requirements vary.

But most often, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, budding substance abuse counselors must earn a bachelor’s degree. At this stage, students should pursue a psychology or counseling degree – but that’s hardly very limiting! There are numerous majors to consider; general psychology, biopsychology, physiological psychology (yes, those are different majors), counseling, social work, and developmental psychology are just a few of the majors you may consider.

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No matter which of these majors you ultimately choose, your bachelor’s degree coursework will likely include the subjects below, among others:

Cognitive psychology

Attention, memory, reasoning, perception and other cognitive processes are explored. Students learn about research and theories within this field, as well as how cognitive psychology is applied in a wide array of other fields.

Intro to statistics

Students familiarize themselves with the mathematical approaches that allow them to gather, organize and interpret data such that they can draw meaningful conclusions. Terms like statistical population, distribution, dispersion, z-score and null hypothesis will be demystified.

Adolescent psychology

Adolescence is a time of great changes physically, mentally and socially. Students begin to appreciate how and why these developments occur and, in the process, begin to understand how behavioral problems emerge during adolescence.

Counseling theory

The aim of this course is to introduce many of the mainstream approaches to counseling technique and the theory behind them. Students will gain appreciation for how these techniques are intended to promote positive change in a person.

MASTER'S DEGREE

1.5-2 years

If you want to enter private practice as a licensed counselor, in most states you’ll first need to earn a master’s degree. When it comes to accreditation, unfortunately there is no single standard that is accepted across the entire country. Absent that, finding a program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Some schools offer master’s degrees available in substance abuse counseling – or allow students to focus in on substance abuse counseling while obtaining a clinical or mental health counseling master’s degree. It’s also very common for students to pursue a broader master’s degree in social work (MSW) or counseling and then enroll in a relatively brief certificate program in substance abuse counseling afterward.

Regardless of your choice of master’s-level counseling program, it will likely include courses in the following example subjects, among many others:

Addictive diseases

Learn about the many physiological impairments and conditions that develop in the human body as a consequence of drug and alcohol abuse.

Intervention

Students will already be familiar with the theory behind intervention. This course guides them from foundational knowledge to successful application.

Mental health policy

Often with special focus on mental health attention to the youth in our communities, this course examines the successes and shortcomings of current policies.

Alcoholism and drug abuse

Dive deep into the theories intended to explain the development of substance abuse and codependency. Explore and analyze treatment modalities.

Keys to Success

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Stress management and trauma-coping skills

The workplace of a counselor is often challenging and requires stress management and trauma-coping skills. Counselors must be able to maintain calm under duress, and should be able to manage chronic stress. A mentally healthy counselor can “leave the work at work,” and not become overwhelmed by clients’ needs. In institutional settings such as correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers, recidivism is high; a substance abuse counselor must be able to navigate his or her own emotions when some clients inevitably return to drug or alcohol use. These counselors rely on good stress management skills and emotional maturity in order to thrive in a work environment that poses unique challenges.

Strong support group

Among drug counselors with high caseloads, burnout is fairly common. And in therapeutic settings, secondary trauma (experiencing a trauma response after helping another person deal with negative experiences) is a potential risk. In order to maintain emotional and mental health in this stressful and emotionally taxing line of work, counselors are advised to locate their own sources of support – such as religious and social communities, and family. Seeking individual or group therapy may also help because other counselors can provide invaluable insight and emotional support to their colleagues.

Communication skills

Substance abuse counselors must possess excellent listening and speaking skills and be able to communicate with a broad spectrum of people with varying educational levels.

Empathy and compassion

Counselors must remain a source of emotional strength and steadfastness to a large caseload of clients, some of whom are under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in the midst of emotional crisis. Compassion must inform their desire to work in this field, as the clientele is a challenging one that can resist treatment and respond confrontationally or even with violence.

Good ethics

It is an absolute necessity that substance abuse counselors possess and maintain a healthy relationship with substances such as alcohol and painkillers.

Optimism

Finally, a fundamentally optimistic nature also helps, as the road to recovery tends to be a long and hard one with many setbacks.

Erika Price, PhD

Erika Price has a PhD in Social Psychology from Loyola University Chicago, and serves as an instructor at North Park University and The Chicago School for Professional Psychology. A recent Postdoctoral Research Associate, Erika has studied Open-Mindedness and Political Tolerance with support from the John Templeton Foundation.

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