How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance abuse costs Americans $740 billion each year due to crime, healthcare, and decreased productivity. This issue also costs human lives. Society needs qualified substance abuse counselors to help individuals cope with addiction.

Becoming a qualified substance abuse counselor with a doctorate takes up to a decade of higher education and requires sincere commitment. Compassionate individuals who enjoy problem-solving and active listening typically thrive in this role. Keep reading to learn how to become a substance abuse counselor.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

Career Basics

Substance abuse counselors work closely with clients to create and implement treatment plans. Typically, these individuals work at a mental health clinic, hospital, or private practice. They conduct one-on-one therapy sessions with individuals experiencing substance abuse issues. They also facilitate group counseling sessions where individuals verbally process their experiences.

These counselors primarily help patients struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism. They study how different substances affect the brain, emotional health, and behaviors. Substance abuse counselors actively listen to their clients and take notes during a session. They connect patients and their family members with helpful community resources.

Some substance abuse counselors contribute to substance abuse prevention and education efforts. They host community seminars explaining how to identify substance abuse issues or speak at schools to educate students about illegal drugs.

Career In-Depth

Most substance abuse counselors work full time. However, work hours look different from counselor to counselor. Some of these professionals only accept clients during traditional business hours. Others may work 2-3 nights per week and weekends to accommodate client schedules. Counselors may receive emergency calls from clients outside of their stated business hours.

Individuals with a substance abuse counseling degree qualify for a variety of jobs. For example, some graduates work as addiction counselors in prisons. Others focus more on crisis recovery in a hospital setting.

Licensing renewal requires continuing education, often through the form of virtual webinars.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Job Growth

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), projects the need for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to rise 22% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than other industries. These professions grow as people continue to seek help for addictions. Substance abuse counselors earned a median annual salary of $46,240 in 2019.

Salary varies based on geographical region. Local governments often offer incentives, like federal loan forgiveness, to counselors who work in high-need areas. Certain employers, like federal prisons, often pay more to attract a competitive job pool.

Six Steps to Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Becoming an addiction counselor takes time and effort. After completing education and following the necessary steps, individuals can earn jobs as substance abuse counselors in private practice, rehabilitation, or hospital settings. Below, we discuss actions these professionals must take to emerge as a leader in this field.

Step 1 Earn Your Bachelor's Degree

Forming a career as a successful substance abuse counselor often requires postgraduate education. Prospective counselors begin their career path by earning a bachelor's degree. Ideally, the prospective counselor earns a bachelor's degree in a related field like counseling, social work, or psychology. However, some master's programs accept students with majors in unrelated areas.

Bachelor's students increase their chances of entering a competitive master's program by gaining volunteer experience at a substance abuse counseling center.

Step 2 Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling

According to the BLS, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors only need a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. However, some states require a master's degree in counseling or a related field for licensure.

Ideally, students research master's programs during their junior year of college. Some master's programs feature a more competitive applicant pool than traditional bachelor's programs, so consider applying to multiple programs.

Step 3 Complete an Internship or Practicum

States require supervised hours for licensure, and individuals work towards this requirement through an internship or practicum. Students who want to practice as a substance abuse counselor can intern at a rehabilitation or private clinic. Online programs typically allow students to complete supervised hours in their home state.

Students gain hands-on experience in internships, while practicums generally emphasize observation. Both provide students with the chance to apply their knowledge in real-life scenarios.

Step 4 Choose an Area of Specialization

Most programs encourage students to select a specialization within the broad field of counseling. Concentration courses offer in-depth knowledge about specific areas of counseling, like family counseling or early childhood psychology.

A concentration requires 12-21 credits and may include an additional practicum component. Individuals who want to become a substance abuse counselor often select a concentration in addiction recovery.

Step 5 Earn Professional Credentials

Substance abuse counselors need to obtain licensure in order to practice. Licensure standards vary among states, so check your state's exact requirements.

Most licensing boards require prospective counselors to obtain a master's degree in a field related to counseling and complete about 3,000 hours of supervised experience. Once they meet these requirements, candidates can take the licensing exam.

Individuals also earn certifications to demonstrate their professional knowledge. Substance abuse counselors benefit from becoming a certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor.

Step 6 Obtain a Doctoral Degree

Individuals who want to complete research in the substance abuse counseling field or start their own private practice can earn a doctorate in substance abuse counseling. This advanced degree requires students to contribute research to the field and analyze theories that shape current substance abuse counseling treatments. Doctoral students complete a dissertation project related to substance abuse counseling.

Many students earn their doctorate while working full time. Typically, a doctoral degree requires 120 credits and takes 4-6 years to complete.

Preparing to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor: Schools and Programs

Prospective students interested in pursuing substance abuse counseling should make a list of the top qualities they hope to find in a program. Examples of priorities could include affordable tuition, a low student-to-faculty ratio, a flexible program format, and a customizable curriculum.

Individuals who value affordability often take financial aid into consideration. Some colleges with high tuition offer significantly more financial aid to students. Third-party scholarships and federal grants also decrease out-of-pocket expenses. Individuals willing to pay more for smaller class sizes often consider private colleges over state schools.

Program format makes an impact on student satisfaction. For example, individuals who value flexibility benefit from online programs that follow an asynchronous format. This type of program allows students to watch pre-recorded lectures and hold conversations with peers online.

Prospective students should ensure that a program's curriculum aligns with their career goals.

Courses in Substance Abuse Counselor Programs

A substance abuse counselor program teaches students about diverse perspectives in the field. Master's programs require 35-50 credits depending on the school and take 2-4 years to complete.

In their courses, students examine substance abuse warning signs and effects, prevention and intervention, and various counseling forms and philosophies. Many programs include internships, requiring students to complete supervised working hours and providing hands-on experience. Find potential course examples for substance abuse counselor programs below, but keep in mind not all schools hold these class offerings.

  • Counseling Theories

    Graduates entering substance abuse counseling need to know the leading theories in their field. This course gives students the tools to develop their own counseling philosophies and provide effective care to future patients. Common theories include existential psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational behavioral therapy.

  • Social and Cultural Diversity Issues in Counseling

    Substance abuse counselors help patients with diverse backgrounds daily. In this course, students obtain a firm understanding regarding social and multicultural issues experienced in their field to better inform their practice. This course treats topics like race, gender, and disabilities. Instructors also address historical diversity issues in counseling and modern trends in the profession.

  • Diagnostics, Assessment, and Treatment

    This course provides information about tools and procedures for diagnosing patients, assessing their health conditions, and providing care. Learners develop skills to address common addiction and mental health situations. Students examine the latest substance abuse therapy tools and technology.

  • Practicum/Internship

    Most programs require students to participate in a practicum or internship where they acquire professional experience with certified substance abuse counselors. In a practicum or internship, students and counselors work together in a clinical setting. Students observe professionals at work and participate in the job's daily tasks with their direct mentorship.

  • Group Counseling Theory and Practice

    Substance abuse counselors often facilitate group therapy sessions. Graduate students learn ways to effectively navigate group settings by examining their role and the patients' roles, as well as strategies and tools. Because counselors use many different styles of leadership in group settings, learners examine multiple styles to find what works best for them.

Accreditation for a Substance Abuse Counselor Program

Before choosing a substance abuse counseling program, individuals should check the institution's accreditation status. An accredited school regularly receives quality assessments from a third-party organization that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee.

Schools earn either regional or national accreditation, but employers usually view degrees from schools with regional accreditation as more reputable. Some scholarships reserve funds exclusively for students attending an accredited institution. Individuals can research a college or university's accreditation status by using the ED Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs tool.

Counseling programs can also earn programmatic accreditation. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs grants accreditation to substance abuse counseling programs. In addition, online programs can earn accreditation. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission grants accreditation to online programs.

Substance Abuse Counselor Specialties

Students specialize in a topic by selecting a concentration for their studies. Keep in mind that schools offer a unique set of concentrations, and some colleges and universities do not offer concentrations at all. Programs that do not offer concentrations often allow students to tailor their studies with a minor.

Examples of ideal concentrations for prospective substance abuse counselors include alcoholism, adolescent addiction, and mental health. Individuals pursuing a concentration in alcohol addiction learn about topics like genetic predisposition and the physical effects of alcohol.

Students focusing on adolescent addiction learn about how drugs and alcohol impact a developing brain. A mental health concentration emphasizes how substances detrimentally affect mental health and how some mental health disorders lead to substance abuse.

Individuals can also specialize in a topic by earning a certification from a professional organization.

Substance Abuse Counselor Certification

Earning a certification demonstrates qualifications to both employers and clients.

National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP)

This organization offers three levels of certification: national certified addiction counselor, level I; national certified addiction counselor, level II; and master addiction counselor. Each level has its own set of eligibility requirements.

NCCAP also offers specialized certifications, such as nicotine dependence, adolescent addiction, or peer recovery support. NCCAP requires a $235 application fee and a $200 application renewal fee.

Finding a Substance Abuse Counselor Program

Educational requirements for substance abuse counselors varies from state to state, the BLS reports. However, most positions require candidates to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Substance abuse counselors often pursue a master’s degree to open a wider range of career options.

Before enrolling in a substance abuse degree program, students should weigh factors such as cost, type of degree offered, delivery method (online versus on campus), length, and how to pay for their education. Additional points to consider are class size, campus size, graduation rates, and location.

The search tool below can help students find a college and substance abuse program in their state:

Components of a Successful Substance Abuse Counselor Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

It takes more than just a master's degree to succeed as a substance abuse counselor. These professionals take further steps to educate themselves and demonstrate competency.

For example, counselors need excellent interpersonal and active listening skills. They demonstrate these skills by listening to interview questions and answering them clearly and confidently. Counselors also need problem-solving skills to develop creative treatment approaches.

Many counseling centers now offer teletherapy, so employers often seek candidates with computer skills. Substance abuse counselors must also understand software programs, like TherapyNotes. Self-employed substance abuse counselors also need marketing and accounting skills.

Substance Abuse Counselor Professional Organizations

Joining a professional organization allows substance abuse counselors to network and stay informed on current industry advancements. Most professional organizations host national conferences and publish informative newsletters. These organizations also provide continuing education hours that help counselors meet licensing renewal requirements. The following list contains professional organizations for addiction counselors:

  • American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry

    AAAP provides evidence-based research through exclusive newsletters and website content. The organization also offers training resources for employers and hosts one large annual meeting. Membership costs $135-$250 per year.

  • International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors

    This organization's membership includes addiction and offender counselors from across the world. IAAOC provides resources to individuals who aid clients with alcohol, drug, gambling, and sex addictions. The group offers exclusive podcasts, newsletters, and conferences. Members also enjoy access to the IAAOC's resource center.

  • National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors

    More than 100,000 addiction counselors and addiction-focused professionals maintain membership with the NAADAC. This organization provides continuing education, certification, and training to substance abuse counselors. Members benefit from reduced insurance rates, access to conferences, and continuing education.

  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers

    NAATP offers resources like an addiction industry directory, a code of ethics, and an exclusive job center. This organization provides unique training such as member roundtables. NAATP provides awards and recognizes outstanding members.

FAQ on Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Resources for Substance Abuse Counselors

  • Addiction Blog

    This blog publishes articles by healthcare writers with drug addiction experience. A medical reviewer edits each article to ensure accuracy. Addiction Blog aims to inform families and individuals impacted by drug addiction and focuses on topics like types of illegal drugs, prescription drug abuse, and alcoholism.

  • Addiction Center

    The Addiction Center offers information about withdrawal and detox, treatments, and drug classifications. Substance abuse counselors can refer their patients to the Addiction Center website. Students studying substance abuse counseling can also learn more about the field through this resource.

  • Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy

    This resource provides open-access articles from a network of 700 journals to individuals in the substance abuse counseling field. Professionals submit manuscripts for publication consideration and share their work with more than 15,000,000 readers. Topics include holistic addiction treatment, alcoholism rehabilitation, and amphetamine-related disorders.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline

    Substance abuse counselors can refer their patients to this helpful resource. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline offers a free, confidential hotline for individuals experiencing or trying to avoid a relapse. Individuals can access this resource at any time. Helpline operators assist in English and Spanish.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary & Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 102,400 substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors working in the U.S. in 2016. Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of settings, from rehabilitation and substance abuse centers to hospitals, prisons and detention facilities. Others work in detox centers and recovery houses. The country’s prolonged battle against opioids – more than 115 people die every day in the U.S. after overdosing on opioids – will continue to be a major driver of employment for substance abuse counselors.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salaries

The median annual salary for substance abuse counselors and related professions was $43,300 in May of 2017. Wages for the top 10 percent of U.S. substance abuse and mental health counselors was considerably higher, though, at just north of $70,000 annually.

Substance abuse counselors who worked in government facilities also earned more than the national average at $50,600, as did counselors employed by hospitals ($47,000). Average wages dipped below the national average for substance abuse counselors employed at outpatient and residential substance abuse facilities. reports that late-career professionals often earn up to 23 percent more than the national average. Location also can affect wages, as can specialty skills such as group counseling, case management, group therapy or diagnosis and treatment planning.

The following chart examines mean annual wages and employment data for substance abuse counselors in each state:

Alabama Mean wage annual: $41,260
Currently Employed: 839
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21%
Alaska Mean wage annual: $54,280
Currently Employed: 290
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 12%
Arizona Mean wage annual: $40,590
Currently Employed: 2,900
Change in Employment (2016-2026): N/A
Arkansas Mean wage annual: $36,430
Currently Employed: 670
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24%
California Mean wage annual: $44,450
Currently Employed: 9,050
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 19%
Colorado Mean wage annual: $43,570
Currently Employed: 1,540
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 33%
Connecticut Mean wage annual: $48,660
Currently Employed: 2,600
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14%
Delaware Mean wage annual: $39,560
Currently Employed: 280
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 18%
Florida Mean wage annual: $46,010
Currently Employed: 4,440
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 29%
Georgia Mean wage annual: $40,890
Currently Employed: 970
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 25%
view more

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Outlook

Employment for substance abuse counselors is projected to rise by 23 percent, or 23,800 new jobs, through 2026, the BLS reports. Several factors will contribute to the increased demand:

  • More states are making a push to provide counseling and treatment to drug offenders rather than sentence them to jail time or prison.
  • The continued fight against prescription pain relievers and other drugs, including heroin and fentanyl. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the economic burden of prescription opioid abuse is more than $78.5 billion annually.
  • Improved access to treatment centers and recovery services for drug abusers.

Job prospects are expected to be best for substance abuse counselors with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the BLS notes. Although advances in pain management practices, new research into pain and addiction, and the production of non-addictive medications and technologies could eventually ease demand for substance abuse counselors, these developments are in their early stages and have not had any significant impact on the nation’s need for trained substance abuse counselors.

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