How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

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4 Steps to Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Step 1 Complete an undergraduate degree in substance abuse or addiction studies.

Prospective substance abuse counselors can get their educational journey started at a community college and earn an associate degree, or jump right into a four-year baccalaureate program. A bachelor’s degree is often the minimum educational requirement for substance abuse counselors.

Step 2 Complete a master’s degree program in addiction counseling or addiction studies.

Substance abuse counselors who wish to work in private practice must complete a master’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution. It’s also the minimum educational obtainment for many important industry certifications, such as Master Addiction Counselor from NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals or Certified Addiction Specialist from the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders, or the National Certified Counselor from the National Board for Certified Counselors. Many employers also may require substance abuse counselors to have completed graduate-level work for employment consideration.

Step 3 Earn state licensure.

Licensure requirements for substance abuse counselors who aren’t in private practice vary from state to state and can be found through the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network. Substance abuse counselors who work in private practice must be licensed through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Step 4 Earn important industry certifications.

There are several different voluntary certifications that can help substance abuse counselors increase their career prospects, including the National Certified Addiction Counselor, National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor, and the National Peer Recovery Support Specialist or Master Addictions Counselor. Eligibility requirements for certifications varies but usually includes a combination of education and documented work experience.

FAQ on Earning Your Substance Abuse Counselor Degree or Certification

While getting a college education is a clear step in the path to becoming a substance abuse counselor, it’s just one aspect of a long career journey that needs to be completed. Below are five frequently asked questions about the field of substance abuse counseling.

  • Substance abuse counselors who are required to earn state licensure, such as those in private practice, must complete continuing education credits to renew their licenses. Additionally, counselors who earn key industry certifications also are required by the credentialing agency to complete continuing education credits and courses to renew their certificates.

  • In addition to national job search sites such as Indeed or ZipRecruiter, many substance abuse associations and industry groups have career centers and job resources for members.

  • Most college degree programs, especially graduate-level programs, require students to complete residency or clinical experience as part of the degree path. Residency helps students gain the necessary first-hand experience they’ll need to eventually work independently of supervision. Residency requirements vary by program, and students – especially distance learners – should ensure they can meet and satisfy a program’s residency requirements prior to enrollment.

  • While membership in one of the many national substance abuse groups and associations is voluntary, counselors can find a wealth of professional resources and industry insight as a benefit of membership. Other benefits include networking opportunities and attending national conferences where counselors can explore and develop new skills and add additional contacts to their professional network of like-minded peers. Substance abuse and addiction counseling groups can be a valuable tool for finding a new job, completing continuing education, or creating a more well-rounded career.

  • Since substance abuse counselors work directly with people, they’ll need superb interpersonal communication skills. They’ll need to listen with full attention to their client’s problems and issues, and effectively communicate diagnosis and treatment plans. They also should be comfortable addressing groups of people. Lastly, since people suffering from addiction often are overly stressed and struggling, counselors will need to be empathetic and understanding about their client’s needs.

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.

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:

Degree Level
School Type

5 Professional Substance Abuse Counselor Associations & Groups

Completing an education and earning certification are only a part of the career path for many substance abuse professionals. Many choose to join industry associations or groups so they can network and collaborate with other professionals, as well as learn new approaches to addiction treatment. The following organizations are some of the leading substance abuse, addiction and mental health associations in the U.S.

The following organizations can help web designers meet like-minded peers, as well as gain specialty certifications that could lead to increased job prospects or new clients.

  • American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders

    This organization is dedicated to advancing certification standards for people who work in treatment of addictive disorders. It offers the comprehensive Certified Addiction Specialist credential that includes treatments of alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as gambling, eating disorders and sexual addictions.

  • American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence

    This New York City-based association was founded in 1984. Its focus originally was on methadone treatment but has evolved into a leading group fighting against opioid dependence. Members promote opioid treatment services and strive to enhance patient care and programs.

  • American Society of Addiction Medicine

    This professional society of more than 5,000 clinicians, physicians and substance abuse professionals is focused on providing increased access to high-quality treatment. Membership benefits include access to the ASAM’s career center, continuing education, discounted rates on addiction resources and tools, and key networking events through local ASAM chapters.

  • International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors

    This mission of this division of the American Counseling Association is to provide leadership and help addiction counselors advance in their profession. The IAAOC is headquartered at Alexandria, Va. and offers student memberships to students enrolled at least half time in an accredited college program.

  • NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals

    Founded in 1972, this global association is one of the premier industry groups for substance abuse counselors and other addiction-focused professionals. The association provides two key industry certifications, as well as education, conferences and networking events, a career center, and other important resources.

10 Additional Resources for Substance Abuse Counselors

The industry trade groups mentioned above and others provide a wealth of resources for substance abuse counselors. Here are 10 additional places where counselors can find industry news and information, continuing education, or government resources to aid in the battle against substance abuse.

  • Addiction Counselor CE

    Provides continuing education to substance abuse counselors that’s accepted by many national organizations, including the National Board for Certified Counselors and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals.

  • Addiction Treatment Forum

    This educational program was first developed in the 1990s. Among its content is nearly 100 newsletters, more than 250 news updates, comprehensive substance abuse site listings, and listings of key industry events related to the treatment of substance abuse.

  • Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly

    Provides news, insight and analysis of federal and state policies, as well as private sector developments in the field of addiction and addiction treatment.


    The Association for Medical Education and Research in Substance Abuse provides mentoring, leadership, collaboration and networking opportunities for substance abuse professionals.

  • Counselor

    This magazine is a go-to source of information for substance abuse professionals. Also has a section dedicated to continuing education resources.

  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

    The world’s largest source of funding for alcohol research. Collaborates with agencies and organizations across the country to advance alcohol-related work and issues.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse

    Advances the science that underpins the causes and consequences of drug abuse and drug addiction. Counselors can find many resources and reports at NIDA.


    Provides free online resources, open access journals, and open educational courses counselors can refer to their patients to help them better understand the psychology of addiction.


    The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration is part of the U.S. Health Administration. Its goal is to reduce substance abuse and mental health in the U.S. Substance abuse counselors will find a wide range of resources, data and reports on the site.