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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.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

When individuals struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction, they may see a substance abuse counselor for help. Substance abuse counselors help these individuals identify issues that can prompt them to engage in addictive behavior, and they treat these individuals and help them develop coping strategies and support systems to prevent relapsing into addictive behaviors. They may recommend support groups and other resources. The substance abuse counselor's goal is to assist their clients to live an addiction-free life.

Degree Required Varies by state from a high school diploma to a master's degree
Education Field of Study Substance abuse counseling or related field
Key Responsibilities Assess 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/Certification State licensure or certification is often necessary, though requirements vary
Job Growth (2018-2028)*22% for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors
Mean Salary (2018)*$47,920 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 2018 and 2028, the employment opportunities for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors will increase 22% (www.bls.gov), 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 $47,920 as of May 2018.

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 of 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 (www.naadac.org). 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 (www.nbcc.org). 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.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

While the qualifications for substance abuse counselors can vary widely from state to state, most counseling positions require a bachelor's or master's degree. Mental health counselors, marriage and family counselors, rehabilitation counselors and clinical social workers may all counsel patients facing specific challenges in their lives. Mental health counselors may work with individuals who have emotional or mental issues, while marriage and family counselors may help a family working through divorce. The work they do is similar to the work of substance abuse counselors because they meet with individuals or groups to discuss the specific challenges they're having and help their clients identify triggers that prompt negative behavior. They work with their clients to help them develop coping strategies for their specific issues.