Substance Abuse Counselor: Career Guide

Substance abuse counselors work with individuals in various stages of the recovery process who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. 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 often 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. Because there are many specialty agencies/entities that employ substance abuse counselors and every environment is different, prospective substance abuse counselors usually 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 they may also work in state, local, and private hospitals or for individual and family services.

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. All 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 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.

Steps for Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

The minimum educational requirement to become a substance abuse counselor is a high school diploma. 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. If you are interested in becoming a licensed substance abuse counselor, you can expect to follow a process similar to the following:

  1. Acquire a degree and complete the minimum number of hours of counseling work experience required for your target job.*
  2. Take and pass your state counseling exam.**
  3. Become a certified counselor.***
  4. Find and apply for a substance abuse counseling job.
  5. Be drug tested.
  6. Submit to a background check.
  7. Be interviewed.
  8. Get hired as a substance abuse counselor.
  9. Receive training on the job.
  10. Renew your license every few years.****

*Note that some entry-level substance abuse counseling jobs may not require a graduate degree and experience, but if your goal is to become licensed, then you must meet these requirements. Check with your state's licensing board for more details.
**Required for licensure.
***Optional for some jobs. Check with the job requirements for more details.
****Check with your state for more details. Certification with the National Board for Certified Counselors requires recertification every five years.

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Training

On-the-job training is extremely important for substance abuse counselors. 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 the 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 traumatic 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.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Addictions Counselor
  • Behavioral Disorder Counselor
  • Case Manager
  • Chemical Dependency Counselor
  • Clinical Counselor
  • Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist (DATS)
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
  • Substance Use Counselor

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median salary of $44,630 per year for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors.1 The BLS estimates 23% growth in employment for substance abuse and behavioral counselors for the decade from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than average.1 The persistent substance abuse problem in the US and the need to increase coverage for substance abuse interventions by health insurance providers are the main influences on the demand for qualified substance abuse counselors. Those with specialized training or education will be in highest demand.

Related Careers

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

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Answer: 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 the education requirements in your area.

Question: Is substance abuse counseling stressful?

Answer: As a substance abuse counselor, you will be working with people who have a dependency on drugs or alcohol that interferes with daily life – sometimes to a dramatic or upsetting extent. 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

Question: What kind of hours do substance abuse counselors work?

Answer: 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. Group counseling also tends to take place during evenings and weekends.

Additional Resources

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors:

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