Substance Abuse Counselor Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Substance Abuse Counselor Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Also known as behavioral disorder counselors, substance abuse counselors work with individuals suffering from alcoholism, addictions, eating disorders and similar behavioral problems. They may help develop a treatment plan for these individuals or work with their families to develop coping strategies.

Substance abuse counselors provide services similar to those offered by mental health counselors, social workers and psychologists although their education and licensing requirements may differ.

A substance abuse counselor's job responsibilities can vary significantly, depending on their certification or licensure. 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.

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

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Students interested in a career as a substance abuse counselor have several education options. While entry-level positions may be available for those directly out of high school or with only a certificate, a graduate degree is necessary for anyone who wants to work independently in private practice. Employers may prefer to hire individuals with at least a bachelor's degree.

Degree Programs

According to the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) website, the career options for substance abuse counselors may be based in part on different levels of education.

  • Certificate programs: For those who want to learn the basics of substance abuse counseling, completing a certificate in addiction studies or alcohol and drug abuse program can provide a foundation for entry level work or for pursuing jobs as a substance abuse disorder technician. These positions may involve screening for substance abuse disorders and monitoring treatment plan compliance.
  • Associate degree programs: A two-year program can be the basis for preparing for jobs involving greater responsibility. According to the NAADAC, earning an associate degree in a behavioral science field with a clinical focus may make students eligible for jobs as associate substance use disorder counselors. These professionals may provide client and family education, monitor treatment plans, make referrals and coordinate care.
  • Bachelor's degree programs: With a four-year degree, individuals may be eligible for many substance abuse counselor jobs. They can complete screenings, draw up treatment plans and serve as case managers although their work must be supervised and provided through a licensed facility.
  • Master's degree programs: Counselors who want to work independently in private practice need a master's degree. Graduate-level programs can prepare individuals to become licensed clinical substance abuse counselors or supervisors.


While classes may vary from school to school, substance abuse counseling education generally includes a mix of science, counseling and communications among other requirements. Regardless of the degree level, students enrolled in substance abuse programs can expect to study the following subjects:

  • Case management and counseling theory
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Psychology and addiction
  • Ethics for addiction professionals
  • Pharmacology
  • Crisis management
  • Assessments, tests and measurements
  • Theories of personality
  • Human biology

Certification and Licensure

When selecting a degree program, students should not only check the school's accreditation and credentials, but they should also inquire into their state's licensing requirements and voluntary certification programs. All states require substance abuse counselors who work independently be licensed, and some states may require applicants possess a specific degree or meet other education requirements such as the completion of an internship. State requirements may differ for counselors working outside a private practice.

State licensure requirements typically require substance abuse counselors to complete:

  • A master's degree program (some states may require a specific degree program)
  • 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work
  • Passage of licensure exam, administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors
  • Annual continuing education

Once licensed, a substance abuse counselor can work independently or move into leadership roles such as that of a supervisor or director.

In addition to licensure, some states may have a certification ladder for substance abuse counselors working in their jurisdiction. These ladders specify different designations based upon an individual's education and experience.

For example, the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals offers the following designations which build up to state licensure:

  • Registered Student
  • Registered Recovery Worker
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor Associate
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Level I
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Level II

California also has specialty certifications for those who want to be a Certified Clinical Supervisor, California Certified Prevention Specialist, Certified Criminal Justice Addiction Professional or a Women's Treatment Specialist.

Other states may have their own certification ladder as well as laws defining the scope of practice for counselors based upon their current state designation.

Beyond state programs, voluntary certification is available through professional organizations like the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals, which offers these credentials.

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I: This certification is available to those who have a current state certification or license and have completed three years or 6,000 hours of supervised work as a substance use disorder counselor. Applicants must also pass a written exam before being certified.
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II: Level-two counselors must have at least a bachelor's degree, current state licensure and five years or 10,000 hours of supervised experience as a substance use disorder counselor. As with Level I, there is a written exam requirement as well.
  • Master Addiction Counselor: This level of certification requires a master's degree in the healing arts or a related field along with three years or 6,000 hours of supervised experience. Applicants must possess current state licensure or certification and pass a written exam.

Once earned, these credentials may help make individuals more attractive to potential employers, increase opportunities for promotion and open doors to managerial positions.

For more information on substance abuse counselor licensing and certification, contact your state licensing board. Schools offering substance abuse counselor degree programs may also be able to provide information on state requirements and voluntary certification programs.

Career Advancement

Substance abuse counselors may be able to advance to supervisory roles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that this career has a high rate of turnover, which may help more create job openings.

Skills and Qualities

In terms of personal skills, substance abuse 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, because substance abuse counselors are addressing a highly sensitive topic, they must possess a strong sense of ethics and confidentiality.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Substance abuse treatment counselors may work as part of a larger treatment or intervention team to meet the needs of specific populations such as teens, individuals with disabilities or those who are incarcerated. Counselors are also likely to be in demand as courts increasingly require treatment for substance abuse offenders. With health reform requiring insurance coverage of substance abuse treatment, counselors may want to explore opportunities in private practice.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes most substance abuse counselors work full-time. They may be employed in a number of settings by a variety of employers, including:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Nursing and residential care facilities
  • Individual and family services
  • State and local governments
  • Hospitals


  • Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2012,
  • Certification, The Association for Addiction Professionals,
  • Employment Information, Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network,
  • Essential Health Benefits, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
  • National Board for Certified Counselors, Understanding NBCC's National Certifications,
  • The National Association for Addiction Professionals, Guide to NCCAP Credentials,
  • With CCAPP, Career is Your Journey, California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals,
  • Scopes of Practice & Career Ladder for Substance Use Disorder Counseling, NAADAC, September 2011,
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook,
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