Become a Substance Abuse Counselor in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a substance abuse counselor. Learn about education requirements, job duties, average wages and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Addiction Counseling degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information At a Glance

Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, drug rehabilitation counselors, or drug and alcohol addiction counselors, work with addicted individuals and their families to assess addictions, develop treatment plans, and provide counseling to help addicted persons overcome their addictions. Their goal is to improve the quality of their patients' lives by helping them live without the burden of addiction. See the table below for more information about this career.

Degree RequiredVaries by state from a high school diploma to a master's degree
Education Field of StudySubstance abuse counseling or related field
Key ResponsibilitiesAssess individuals for substance abuse problems
Provide counseling to individuals, groups and families for substance abuse problems
Develop treatment programs for implementation with addicted individuals
Maintain records as required by local laws and regulations
Licensure/CertificationState licensure or certification is often necessary, though requirements vary
Job Growth (2012-2022)31% for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors*
Mean Salary (2013)$41,090 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor deals with individuals who have problems with illegal, prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as with alcohol. 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 2012 and 2022, the employment opportunities for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors will increase 31% (, a rate much faster than average. More counselors will be needed as more people seek help and as courts continue to mandate substance abuse treatment for drug offenders. The mean salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was $41,090 as of May 2013.

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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