Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

According to the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older had used illicit drugs within the past month, while 1.0 million received treatment for the use of illicit drugs during that same year.

Along with the fact new health insurance plans must now cover substance abuse services, these two statistics may contribute to the 31 percent job growth the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) estimates for substance abuse counselors from 2012-2022. If you want to be a part of this growing field and have a job with the potential to make a profound impact in the lives of others, you'll find there's more than one career path when it comes to becoming a substance abuse counselor.

Substance abuse counselor program requirements and prerequisites

For entry-level jobs, the BLS reports the only education that may be needed is a high school diploma or GED along with some on-the-job training. However, The Association for Addiction Professionals notes a higher level of education will be required for those planning a career path that will take them into private practice.

Associate degrees and undergraduate certificates in substance abuse counseling are available, but employers may prefer to hire individuals with at least a bachelor's degree. In addition, all states require counselors meeting with clients one-on-one in private practice to be licensed. Licensure requirements may vary, but all states require applicants have a master's degree.

Regardless of the degree level, students enrolled in substance abuse programs may expect to study the following subjects among others.

  • Case management and counseling theory
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Psychology and addiction
  • Ethics for addiction professionals
  • Pharmacology
  • Crisis management

Students studying for an associate degree or certificate may learn the basics while those in bachelor's and master's degree programs may explore these topics in greater depth and move on to more advanced concepts.

Necessary skills and qualifications for substance abuse counselors

If you want to learn how to become a substance abuse counselor, you have to know more than simply the degree needed. You also have to understand the special skills and other qualifications counselors must possess to do their work successfully.

In terms of personal skills, counselors must have a high level of compassion and empathy. They may work with individuals who have struggled for years to overcome chemical dependency, and the road to recovery is seldom straight. Counselors must have the patience to deal with relapses in a constructive manner. In addition, substance abuse counselors must be able to listen carefully and communicate clearly. Excellent interpersonal skills are essential for counselors to connect with their clients. Finally, since substance abuse counselors are addressing a highly sensitive topic, they must possess a strong sense of ethics and confidentiality.

Beyond having the right personal skills, substance abuse counselors may also need to have state certification to fill certain roles. Some states maintain a certification ladder which dictates the scope of practice for substance abuse counselors who are not licensed.

Working environment and job duties

Depending on their certification or licensure, a substance abuse counselor's work environment and job responsibilities may vary significantly.

However, most professionals in the field may do one or more the following.

  • Evaluate and assess individuals for substance use disorders
  • Educate individuals and their families on substance use disorders
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Monitor progress and make adjustments to the plan as needed
  • Refer clients for other services
  • Coordinate care among multiple providers

Those who are licensed can provide one-on-one counseling in private practice. Those without licensure and with less education may provide support services or work under the supervision of a licensed practitioner as part of a larger health care team.

The BLS notes most substance abuse counselors work full-time, and they may be employed in a number of settings. Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers employed 22 percent of substance abuse counselors in 2012. These individuals may have regular hours during the week. However, another 22 percent of counselors were employed by nursing and residential facilities, and these professionals may also be required to fill evening and weekend work hours.


Employment Information, Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, http://www.addictioncareers.org/addictioncareers/careers/jobs.asp

"Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2012, http://media.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2012SummNatFindDetTables/NationalFindings/NSDUHresults2012.pdf
Scopes of Practice & Career Ladder for Substance Use Disorder Counseling, NAADAC, September 2011, http://www.addictioncareers.org/addictioncareers/resources/documents/PEP11-SCOPES.pdf

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm#tab-1

Substance Abuse Counselor Schools