253-235-9172 for an advisor



Substance Abuse Counselor Career Guide

Substance abuse counselors work with individuals who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol in various stages of the recovery process. They play an integral role in their clients’ lives, working to teach them coping mechanisms and new, healthier behaviors that can take the place of drug or alcohol use. Substance abuse counselors may work in mental health and substance abuse centers or hospitals. This guide provides information about what substance abuse counselors do, requirements for the position, and the career outlook for substance abuse counselors.

Substance Abuse Counselor Career Descriptions, Duties, and Common Tasks

Substance abuse counselors evaluate each client to determine the background and severity of the addiction and where that individual falls in his/her personal recovery. Many clients are court referrals following charges of impaired driving or possession of a controlled substance, but others are voluntary, and need help with their recovery. Counselors complete a thorough evaluation which may include written tests, drug screens, and talk therapy. Once the evaluation is complete, they make recommendations for the course of treatment required to assist the individual in learning to cope with his or her addiction. They also work with the individual to set goals for themselves and make plans that will aid in their recovery. Some individuals may only require an educational program while others may require intense intervention which may include detox, inpatient, or outpatient treatment. Substance abuse counselors follow the individual’s progress while he/she is in the recommended program. Treatment provided may include education, one-on-one counseling, group counseling, and referrals for further intervention.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor: Requirements and Qualifications

Most states require that substance abuse counselors possess a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and supervised experience, under a licensed counselor, working with individuals who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Many states require a minimum of a master’s degree and licensure to work as a substance abuse counselor. Check with your state for full requirements.

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Training

On-the-job training is also extremely important to substance abuse counselors, and is necessary for those starting in the field with only a high school diploma. In some cases, on-the-job training can take the place of a college degree, with a certain number of hours required to prepare a person to become certified. Real world training can prepare substance abuse counselors for crisis situations, exposing them to distinct personalities and addictions of actual clients.

Other Skills and Helpful Experience

People who are interested in being substance abuse counselors should be naturally compassionate. They must be able to empathize with clients who may come from very different backgrounds and who may have experienced extreme stress or life experiences. Substance abuse counselors should be excellent listeners, but also be intuitive, being able to distinguish lies from truth in order to best help their clients. Excellent communication skills are also essential, allowing counselors to express themselves clearly and effectively to best assist their clients in the recovery process.

Examples of Possible Job Titles for this Career

  • Addictions counselor
  • Behavioral disorder counselor
  • Case manager
  • Chemical dependency counselor
  • Clinical counselor
  • Drug and alcohol treatment specialist (DATS)

Career Opportunities and Employers

Because there are many different agencies/entities that employ substance abuse counselors, individuals can focus on a particular aspect of substance abuse when seeking employment (e.g. school counseling, prison counseling, hospitals, etc.). The majority of substance abuse counselors work in inpatient or outpatient mental health or substance abuse centers, but others work in state, local or private hospitals, or for individual and family services.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median salary of $38,520 per year in 2012 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors.1 Individual salary can depend on the agency/entity for which the substance abuse counselor works. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 31% growth in employment for substance abuse and behavioral counselors for the decade from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster than average.1 The nation’s substance abuse problems as well as the fact that addiction services are being increasingly covered by health insurance influence demand for qualified substance abuse counselors. Those with specialized training or education will be in higher demand than general knowledge counselors.

Frequently Asked Questions About This Career

Do I need a bachelor’s degree to become a substance abuse counselor?

Most substance abuse counselor positions do require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, and some even require a master’s degree. However, there are some jobs that require only a high school degree, along with relevant work experience. Check with your state or with a specific clinic or hospital to find out what education is required.

Is substance abuse counseling stressful?

As a substance abuse counselor, you will be working with people who have a dependency on drugs or alcohol, in some cases so severe that it is ruining their life. Being a source of support for these people, and helping them come up with plans to change their habits, can certainly be stressful, especially with the possibility of relapse after treatment being so high (40 to 60% by some estimates).2

What kind of hours do substance abuse counselors work?

Most substance abuse counselors work full-time, but their hourly schedule depends on the type of facility in which they work. In outpatient facilities, they might typically work a daytime schedule, but in inpatient facilities, they could work nights and weekends, since those facilities need to be staffed 24/7.

Additional Resources

Substance Abuse/Addiction and Counseling Degree Programs

Searching for Schools...

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar to a substance abuse counselor? Check out these related careers:

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm
2. National Institute of Drug Abuse: http://www.drugabuse.gov/