How to Get a Drug and Alcohol Counseling Certificate

How to Get a Drug and Alcohol Counseling Certificate

How to Get a Drug and Alcohol Counseling Certificate

More than 19 million Americans ages 12 and up battled a substance abuse disorder in 2017. Of those, 74% struggled with alcohol and 38% with illicit drug use. One in eight were affected by both.

These numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health may be startling, and they aren’t figures anyone wants to see. However, these statistics demonstrate the dire need — perhaps more than ever — for qualified professionals to help others with their addiction.

Addiction counseling is a fast-growing area in the mental health profession. Depending on where you live and where you work (or hope to work), you might need further education or credentials to work specifically with substance abuse cases. You may have searched for “drug and alcohol counseling certificate,” but to practice in California, what you’ll officially need is certification from an approved organization.

Before we cover what this certification entails, we’ll share more about the career path itself, including demand and duties.

Demand for Substance Abuse Counselors

The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports substance abuse counselors are among the fastest-growing positions in the country; through 2026, it’s estimated this field will grow by 23 percent, which is much faster than the average occupation.

Dr. Donald Posson, a psychology faculty member at National University, explained how this increasing demand prompted his school to offer a drug counseling certificate program. He says, in a previous blog post, “Because of the need in this specialty, we designed the program for professionals who need to pick up enough education credits to get certified in substance abuse therapy.”

The need Posson speaks of is also often highlighted in the national news as well as in official health research. In March 2018, the CDC released an in-depth analysis of drug overdose data from 2016. That year, more than 63,000 Americans died as a result of a drug overdose, and 66% of those involved prescription medication or illicit opioids. In this report, the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat warned, “No area of the United States is exempt from the epidemic — we all know a friend, family member, or loved one devastated by opioids.” A CDC fact sheet on alcohol reports that from 2006 to 2010, more than 88,000 people per year died of excessive alcohol abuse.

It’s clear there’s a need nationally, but how does this epidemic affect California? According to American Addiction Centers, in 2017 there were 4,281 opioid overdose emergency room visits and 2,196 opioid deaths in the state. Also, of those seeking treatment for addiction in California in 2017, alcohol was the most commonly reported substance of abuse.

What Does an Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

The day-to-day responsibilities of an alcohol and substance abuse counselor will vary based on your specific role and where you’re providing services. According to the BLS, some of the overarching duties may include:

  • Evaluating behaviors and mental and physical health.
  • Assessing readiness for treatment.
  • Developing treatment plans.
  • Measuring the effectiveness of treatment.
  • Helping clients identify their obstacles to recovery.
  • Refer clients to other resources and services.

Addiction counselors may work with clients in individual or group settings, and sometimes they also will help family members and loved ones cope.

What is Substance Abuse Counseling Certification?

Many people who want to become an alcohol and substance abuse counselor might already have an associate or bachelor’s degree in a related area and even professional experience in a mental health role. With some additional education and training, a professional certification in a new area can open more doors.

A professional certification is intended to set industry standards. You’ll see certification required in a range of fields from accounting to engineering. In the substance abuse area, a drug and alcohol counseling certificate recognizes you have the skills and competencies necessary to treat clients.

Substance abuse counseling certification requirements vary from state to state, but most will include a mix of coursework and hands-on experience. For example, the California State Department of Health Care Services bases its requirements on “Addiction Counseling Competencies: Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes of Professional Practice,” which was published by the Center for Abuse Treatment.

The California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP) is charged with maintaining the requirements as well as certifying and approving educational providers. National University, one of the most established and experienced online colleges in San Diego, is one of those providers.  Next, let’s look at more specific requirements for the Golden State.

Earning a Drug and Alcohol Counseling Certificate in California

National University’s undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling was designed to meet California state standards. As of May 2019, the eligibility requirements for a CCAPP certification as an alcohol/drug counselor level one (CADC-I) with undergraduate coursework completed are:

  • 315 hours of approved education.
  • 255 practicum hours.
  • 2,080 hours of supervised work experience (which can include the practicum hours).
  • Passing score on exams.

The educational requirements for a drug counseling certificate, outlined by CCAPP, fall under a few “academic content areas” including:

  • Physiology and pharmacology of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Law and ethics.
  • Case management.
  • Counseling.
  • Personal and professional growth.
  • Supervised practicum.

This mix of theory and practical application will provide you with a better understanding of human behavior and substances, as well as the skills to treat and interact with clients.

What Will I Learn and Who Will I Learn From?

While the names of classes may be different at each college or university, all approved schools will cover CCAPP’s “academic content areas” mentioned in the previous section. At National University, your courses might include subjects such as principles of sociology, introduction to psychology, introduction to substance abuse, physiology of substance abuse, case management, and law and ethics. You’ll also gain experience in individual counseling, as well as with groups and families.

As part of the National Department of Psychology, courses in the drug and alcohol counseling certificate program are taught by expert faculty members, many of whom are still practicing in their field. And, when it comes to getting your field experience, National has partnered with several reputable recovery programs in the greater San Diego area and beyond.

Where You Can Get Real-World Experience

In programs like National’s, most of your assignments and classwork can be completed online, at your own pace. But a crucial part of the drug and alcohol counseling certificate program happens in the field through a 250-hour practicum. This supervised learning experience gives you the chance to work with real clients and real cases in a professional setting. In the past, National University students have gained their first-hand, practical experience at organizations such as:

  • Medmark Treatment Centers (Vallejo, Fairfield).
  • Riverside Recovery Resources (Temecula).
  • MFI Recovery (Riverside).
  • CRASH program (San Diego).
  • Full Circle Treatment Center (Roseville).

Since National’s program is based online, students living outside of California may find a practicum site local to them; however, it’s important to confirm National’s curriculum and practicum hours fulfill another state’s requirements for certification.

Employment Options as an Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor

According to the BLS, outpatient care centers employ the highest percentage of substance abuse counselors. However, you could find opportunities within many types of public, private, and governmental organizations including:

  • Hospitals.
  • Government agencies and services.
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities.
  • Correctional facilities.
  • Parole or probation agencies.
  • Detox centers.
  • Halfway houses.
  • Employee assistance programs.

Substance abuse counselors often work full-time during regular business hours, but the nature of the field may also require evening, overnight, weekend, and holiday hours. This is especially the case at residential facilities and hospitals which are open around the clock.

How Much Could I Earn with Substance Abuse Counseling Certification?

As with any career, your salary could be determined by a number of factors including your education level, work experience, level of responsibility, geographic location, and type of employer.

According to the BLS, though, the median annual wage for substance abuse counselors in 2018 is $44,630; behavioral disorder counselors and mental health counselors are also factored into this figure. California offers the highest average annual counselor wage in the country: $50,950. Nationally, the highest-paying sector is government with an average salary of $51,690, followed by state, local, and private hospitals at $48,310.

Your income could grow as you gain experience or add new certifications to your resume. Let’s take a look at some ways to expand your skills and advance your career.

What’s Next? Career Growth Opportunities with a Drug Counseling Certificate

With a field as vast and diverse as mental health, you’ll have many opportunities to update your skills, expand your practice, or advance in your addiction counseling career.

The CCAPP website features a “career ladder” page which entails the various levels of certification. This could give you some ideas for where to go next after you earn your initial drug and alcohol counseling certificate. In addition to climbing the ranks of counseling, such as to levels I, II, or III, you could pursue a specialty certification or endorsement. The CCAPP recognizes several focus areas, including:

  • Certified peer recovery specialist.
  • Certified recovery program manager.
  • Certified clinical supervisor.
  • Certified criminal justice professional.
  • California certified prevention specialist.
  • Medication-assisted treatment specialist.
  • Sober living specialist endorsement.
  • Intervention specialist endorsement.
  • Women’s treatment specialist endorsement.

These and other specialty areas typically require additional education, supervised training (practicum) hours, a specific amount of work experience, and passing an exam. Details can be found at the CCAPP website.  As an example of what these extra certifications may entail, let’s explore a few in more depth.

With a growing need for effective recovery programs, there’s also a need for qualified and passionate people to run those efforts. To become a certified recovery program manager (CRPM), you’ll need a few years of full-time experience (including in a supervisory or administrative role) and some extra training and education. As a CPRM, you can combine your counseling expertise with your leadership skills to build and manage community-based programs.

An intervention specialist endorsement allows drug and alcohol counselors to provide professional assistance to families looking to provide an intervention to a loved one. To earn this credential, you’d need to meet educational requirements, show at least one year (2,000 hours) of experience in the field, and provide a letter of reference.

While people have shared their experiences with one another for a long time, peer support — such as advocating, mentoring, and educating — is becoming increasingly important in recovery care. The certified peer recovery specialist (CPRS), geared toward professionals with lived recovery experiences, standardizes this approach. The CPRS certification includes 100 hours of approved education and training, 500 hours of volunteering, 25 hours of supervised work experience, and a passing score on an exam. The CPRS training even offers areas of focus, including adult, peer, family, parent, or youth.

Aside from additional substance abuse certifications and specialties, another way to grow as a mental health professional is to pursue a related graduate degree. If your goal is to eventually open a private practice, you will likely need a master’s degree. National University, one of the top online colleges in San Diego, offers a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology. This advanced degree provides you with the educational requirements to become a licensed professional clinical counselor in California. Also, some higher-level CCAPP certifications require a master’s degree, including licensed advanced alcohol/drug counselor and licensed advance alcohol/drug counselor supervisor.


A drug and alcohol counseling certificate or similar credential can lead to an incredibly rewarding career helping individual clients and their families overcome the challenges that come with addiction. On a larger scale, as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor, you’ll also be working to combat one of society’s biggest problems.

To learn more about becoming certified in addiction counseling, visit National University’s Undergraduate Certificate in Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counseling program page.

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