Become a Substance Abuse Counselor in 5 Steps

As a substance abuse counselor, you'll work with addicts and their families as well as physicians to develop recovery plans and treatment. Learn about this career and what you need to do to enter it. Schools offering Addiction Counseling degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor may also be known as an addictions counselor, drug rehabilitation counselor or drug and alcohol addiction counselor. Drugs can include illegal, prescription and over-the-counter medications. Through assessment and treatment, you'll help addicts to overcome their addictions and fight the constant battle throughout their daily lives.

You'll empower patients through communication and coping skills so they can function at home, at work and in the community. You'll often work with addicts in group sessions, work with families of addicts and promote awareness in the community. In addition to providing counseling for the initial break from substance abuse, you can continue to offer support and guidance to prevent relapse.

Step 1: Research the Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that between 2008 and 2018 the employment opportunities for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors would increase 21% ( More counselors will be needed as more people seek help and more sentences for drug offenses include mandatory treatment. The average salary in the field as of May 2010 was $40,810.

Step 2: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Depending on where you want to work, educational requirements may vary. While a high school diploma is accepted by some state agencies, postsecondary education will provide you with a greater range of job possibilities. A bachelor's degree program in substance abuse counseling teaches you the basics to working with addicts. You'll learn about psychology, anatomy, therapy methods, assessment and counseling ethics. You'll also study program planning, welfare policies and how addiction affects the brain and behavior. You may also gain personal experience in internships.

Step 3: Consider Further Education

Master's degree programs in substance abuse are also available. These programs dig deeper into psychoanalytical theories and the effect substance abuse has on society. You'll also study pharmacology, crisis intervention and the role of religion in counseling. Master's degree programs can also offer further internships and practicum experience in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics or private offices. Some states may require a master's degree to obtain licensure.

Step 4: Earn Licensure

State licensure requirements for substance abuse counselors vary, so you'll need to research the particular criteria for the state in which you plan on working. Requirements may include completion of certain courses, exams or supervised work experience. Some states allow a given amount of work experience to replace education requirements.

Step 5: Seek Certification

There are national certification programs available for voluntary certification. The Association for Addiction Professionals has a national certification commission ( The commission offers five certifications of varying levels and specialties. These programs require you to have state licensure and at least three years of supervised experience as a substance abuse counselor. The National Board for Certified Counselors also has a voluntary certification as a Master Addictions Counselor ( You'll need at least 12 credit hours of graduate work and three years of supervised work as a counselor to sit for the exam.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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