How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor: Career Guide

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Substance abuse counselors work with people who are recovering from alcohol or drug addictions. They may work with clients who voluntarily seek recovery or who have received court orders to address their addictions. In general, counselors diagnose substance abuse problems and work with clients to create treatment plans. Clients and counselors collaborate to identify positive coping mechanisms and healthy behaviors that can replace substance abuse.

Substance abuse counselor jobs are on the rise. The opioid epidemic coupled with reforms in both the insurance and criminal justice sectors have created new opportunities for counselors in this field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of substance abuse counselors to grow by 22% from 2018-2028. These professionals earn a median annual salary of $44,630. Counselors may work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, or private practices.

This guide covers how to become a substance abuse counselor, in addition to other important information for aspiring counselors, such as salary outlook, common duties, and frequently asked questions.

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Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Substance abuse counselors work to improve people’s lives by identifying, treating, and relieving the effects of substance abuse disorders. These counselors may work with people from the general public or they may specialize in specific populations, such as teens or veterans. Some counselors work with people voluntarily seeking help, while others provide services to people with court orders to receive counseling due to drug- or alcohol-related offenses.

Substance abuse counselors meet with clients to evaluate their health and identify goals and treatment plans. These professionals may also teach group classes, help clients establish their careers, and provide updates and reports to the court. In addition, some counselors provide assistance to families and help with aftercare plans. Substance abuse counselors can work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, or private practices. Counselors specializing in the treatment of children or teens often work in schools or after-school settings.

Steps to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

The following list outlines general steps for how to become a substance abuse counselor, but readers should note that requirements vary by state.

  • GRADUATE FROM HIGH SCHOOL

    All states require substance abuse counselors to hold a high school diploma or higher. While in high school, aspiring counselors can prepare for their careers by volunteering with crisis centers, community organizations, or faith communities.

  • EARN THE REQUIRED DEGREE

    In most states, counselling or psychology degrees qualify graduates to become substance abuse counselors. However, each state determines its minimum required education level. Most states require at least a bachelor’s degree.

  • COMPLETE ALL REQUIREMENTS FOR STATE LICENSURE

    These requirements can include supervised work hours or state-specific training. The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network provides a list of state requirements. Substance abuse counselors who work in private practice must hold licensure with the National Board for Certified Counselors.

  • EARN INDUSTRY CERTIFICATIONS

    Counseling professionals can advance their careers by pursuing certification as adolescent addictions counselors, peer recovery support specialists, or master addictions counselors.

  • Substance Abuse Counselor Job Training

    Substance abuse counselor jobs require more than a degree and licensure. Counseling professionals must also complete extensive on-the-job training. While studying for their degrees, many students complete internships, though some associate programs in psychology or counseling do not require internships or practicums. At the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, counseling degrees require students to complete many hours of supervised work.

    While in school, students may volunteer in service-related roles to boost their resumes. For example, counseling students might man crisis text lines, train as American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers, or work as rape crisis counselors.

    Most states require prospective counselors to complete hundreds or thousands of supervised hours before granting counseling licensure. Typically, professionals must earn these hours after graduating from approved counseling, psychology, or social work programs.

    Some states determine hour requirements for substance abuse counselor licensure based on tiers. For instance, tier one might mandate an associate degree and regular supervision. Tier two might call for 1,000 hours of experience in addition to a bachelor’s degree. Tier three could require 4,000 hours, plus a graduate degree.

    Other Helpful Skills and Experience

    Succeeding as a substance abuse counselor means more than meeting the basic state-established education and experience requirements. Candidates should develop the attitudes, characteristics, and skills needed to help people overcome the challenges posed by chemical addictions.

    Soft skills, such as communication, organization, and memorization, can prove valuable in counseling settings. Moreover, the ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and empathize with people in recovery also proves critical. Most importantly, substance abuse counselors must want to help people facing this particular challenge.

    In addition to these soft skills, specific backgrounds and experience can lay a strong foundation for substance abuse counseling. Relevant experience for this career includes military service or prior work experience with diverse groups of people. Personal experience with recovery can also give counselors valuable insight as they help others; however, maintaining boundaries also proves critical to becoming an effective counselor.

    While education and certification are vital, the best degrees build on students’ life experiences and innate talents. People with the hearts to serve others can use their coursework and licenses to make a difference.

    Salary and Career Outlook

    How much does a substance abuse counselor make? According to the BLS, these professionals earn a median annual salary of $44,630. Substance abuse counselors working in hospitals or for the government can earn more than those working in outpatient or residential settings. Moreover, counselors who lead teams or qualify to make clinical assessments may earn more than their colleagues who primarily provide diagnoses or create treatment plans.

    CareerAverage Annual Salary
    SUBSTANCE ABUSE COUNSELOR$44,630

    The BLS projects that jobs in this field will grow by 22% from 2018-2028, much faster than the national average. Criminal justice reform provides a major reason for this growth. As drug-related offenders threaten to overwhelm the penal system, more judges and magistrates are handing down community-based sentences as an alternative to incarceration. These sentences often include required counseling.

    Another reason for this field’s growth comes from the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, which mandates that participating insurers cover both mental and physical health issues.

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    Frequently Asked Questions


    • How long does it take to become a substance abuse counselor?

      Each state sets its own requirements for substance abuse counselors. Some require a graduate degree and 4,000 hours of supervised work experience. Others allow counselors to enter the profession with just a high school diploma. In nearly every situation, prospective counselors must complete education, experience, testing, and other licensure requirements, which can take a few months to six years or more.


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

      Substance abuse counselors should hold degrees from accredited universities in fields such as counseling or psychology. Licensure requirements vary by state, however. In some states, substance abuse counselors need associate degrees. In others, they must hold bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s or master’s degrees best equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed as substance abuse counselors.


    • What kind of hours do substance abuse counselors work?

      Substance abuse counselors’ hours vary by work setting. Professionals working in inpatient settings, for example, may need 24-hour availability to cover the intense case management needs of a 30-day detox program. Counselors who see clients in offices may keep more traditional hours, but even these professionals must make themselves available at off times in the event of emergencies.


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