How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

In towns and cities across the United States, there is a growing and critical need for drug and alcohol abuse counselors. Sadly, it’s hard to escape the headlines and daily stories of individuals and families destroyed by addiction, especially with opioid abuse in our country now hitting crisis proportions.

People arrive at careers in the substance abuse counseling field in many ways; some, after having dealt with their own addiction; others, are drawn to the career path after seeing friends or family members cope with addiction and recovery. Many times, career interest is the result of a deep commitment to helping others. Whatever the motivation, everyone in this field shares the same goal: to work with individuals to alleviate or remove their dependencies on alcohol and drugs and improve the quality of their lives.

What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A drug and alcohol abuse counselor is a person with experience in providing treatment to clients who want to learn how to reduce or remove their unhealthy dependence on destructive substances and behaviors. Counselors work with individuals, families, couples, and groups to share a variety of techniques and treatments for coping with problems in ways other than turning to unhealthy substances.

People abuse alcohol or drugs for a myriad of reasons, often as a way to deal with stress and problems in their lives. A person doesn’t have to be addicted to a substance to be abusing it. Substance abuse is similar to addiction in that a person enjoys the mind-altering effects, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. When abusing, a person may spend less time going to work or school or being social, since stress in those areas of life can be the trigger that leads to addictive behavior. Counseling a person who is dealing with substance abuse, before it becomes dependence or addiction, requires treatment and a recovery plan, but generally on a lesser scale than if the condition moves to full-blown addiction.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

The specific substance abuse counselor job description will vary, depending on the place of employment, but generally, counselors provide treatment and support to assist individuals in recovering from addiction or modifying problem behaviors such as eating disorders. Substance abuse counselors help clients identify why they have turned to alcohol, drugs, or other destructive behaviors and work with them on techniques and treatments to help turn their lives around.

Some counselors have clients who are assigned by a court to get treatment; some counselors may be called on by family or friends to assist in an intervention. Some counselors specialize in a particular demographic, such as veterans, teens, or those with disabilities. Alcohol and drug abuse touch the lives of people of all ages, ethnicities, income levels, education levels, and gender; abuse is indiscriminate in that way. So no matter what path you pursue in a career in drug and alcohol abuse counseling, there is a need for it.

This counseling field encompasses many job titles, including certified alcohol drug counselor (CADC), addictions counselor, case manager, chemical dependency counselor (CD counselor), clinical counselor, correctional substance abuse counselor, counselor, drug and alcohol program advisors (DAPA), and drug and alcohol treatment specialist (DATS), among others.

Counselors need excellent communication and teamwork skills as they partner with social workers, registered nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians to help create treatment plans for their clients and coordinate patient care and long-term recovery.

Do You Have What it Takes? Substance Abuse Counselor Requirements

Substance abuse counseling is a specialized and challenging job with its own certification. It’s a field that provides a good entry level into counseling careers since you don’t need a bachelor’s- or master’s-level education to become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in 48 states, although it does require specialized training.

People don’t pursue a counseling career in this field just for the paycheck. Being curious enough to research the education and experience needed to be an alcohol and drug abuse counselor is a great start, since reading journal articles and books on the subject will be an ongoing endeavor if you pursue this career path. Other qualities that make for a great counselor include:

  • Active listening – knowing how to read between the lines as clients talk about their lives
  • Empathy – being able to see experiences from your client’s perspective; putting yourself in their shoes
  • Compassion – showing genuine concern for a client
  • Patience – understanding that each client’s progress toward positive change will be at their own pace
  • Open-mindedness – being nonjudgmental about details clients share with you
  • Sensitivity – keeping clients’ stories and health information confidential
  • Authenticity – being genuine, honest, and forthright with clients

The Substance Abuse Counselor Job Outlook is Positive

Substance abuse counseling is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 23% increase from 2016-2026 due to a rise in people seeking addiction and mental health counseling services, as well as states seeking treatment and counseling services instead of jail time for drug offenders.

Dr. Donald Posson, who teaches several of the courses within National University’s undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling program, has been in the addictions and mental health field for over twenty years; those job projection numbers don’t surprise him. “That’s not even taking into account the need that’s coming with the opioid crisis,” he says. “We haven’t even begun to deal with the counseling aspect of that or identified how we’re going to deal with it or resource it. Over the next five to ten years it’s going to require many more therapists than we currently have in the pipeline.”

Dr. Posson notes that across the professional spectrum in California, only about 10 percent of therapists currently have experience in substance abuse counseling. Individuals seeking counseling and therapy are finding it difficult to find the trained professionals they need to help them conquer negative habits.

That’s why National University stepped in. “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,” says Dr. Posson.

Career Opportunities as a Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor

There are several types of jobs in this field, so as a first step to creating your career path, you’ll want to research what is available in your community and area of interest. Counseling jobs in this field are found in outpatient programs, community health centers, prisons, homeless shelters, halfway houses, juvenile facilities, adolescent treatment facilities, hospitals, residential facilities, mental health centers, and private practice. Most positions are full time and often require working evening and weekend hours.

Substance abuse counselor salary ranges depend on several factors, including the level of education, number of hours of field experience, and employment setting. Nonprofit organizations tend to offer lower salaries, while compensation at top-quality residential facilities can be higher.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a substance abuse counselor in 2017 was $43,300. The lowest ten percent in this field earned less than $27,310 and the highest ten percent earned over $70,840. Dr. Posson finds that most drug and alcohol abuse counselors are following a passion for helping people, more than just striving for a paycheck. “People are called to the field; they’re not just seeking a job,” he says.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

The educational path to becoming a substance abuse counselor is pretty straightforward. To receive certification, you will need education and supervised on-the-job, practicum (experience). To become a licensed counselor, graduate-level education and many hours of work experience are required.

National University offers an undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling. The online curriculum enables anyone, including servicemembers, to complete the program and create a schedule that meets their needs. Since new courses start monthly and location is not an issue, students can enroll and begin at any time. The academic requirements can be completed in eight months; the practicum is a six-month course where you’ll attain at least 255 supervised hours working with clients at an approved site.

The program is designed for students early in their academic career, as well as those with advanced degrees who are seeking to specialize in addiction work and need the certification in alcohol and drug abuse counseling.

Dr. Posson says, “The cool thing about our program is that we have students very early in their education in the same class with bachelor- and master-level students who have much more experience in the overall counseling field. The interaction and dialoguing works really well.”

The undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling program meets California certification standards, so students living or working elsewhere must check requirements and standards in their states.

Substance Abuse Counselor Certification Requirements

Most states require 415 academic hours of substance abuse counseling to qualify for work in the field, as well as a specific number of practicum hours. Each state has different requirements, so it’s important to find out how many hours you need based on the location where you plan to work. Along with academics and experience, most states also require that you pass an exam.

Some states require completion of 2,000 to 6,000 internship hours before taking an exam, but requirements vary depending on your current academic level. When you are under the supervision of a licensed therapist, you are working and making money as an alcohol and drug counseling intern – and each state has different requirements for when you can take their exam – sometimes you need to complete internship hours before you finish your academics, other times you can complete the practicum hours after the academics.

National University’s undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling prepares you for entry-level employment and is a stepping stone to pursuing advanced degrees in psychology or other fields or a career as a therapist in the mental health community.

Getting the Undergraduate Certificate for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling

The majority of coursework in National University’s undergraduate certificate is online through live-streaming classrooms. During the last class in the program, the practicum, students are assigned to work with clients on-site in the community, and they participate in a seminar where they go over their fieldwork.

Preparation for on-site work begins almost as soon as students begin the certificate program. “In our program, we start helping students develop relationships with their local addiction community very early in the program through assignments integrated into the program,” says Dr. Posson. “By the last class, they have relationships and an idea of where they would like to do their practicum. Then we help them get a signed agreement with that agency for six months of practicum totaling 255 hours, a minimum in all states.”

The undergraduate certificate at National University combines training in psychology, physiology, law and ethics, case management, and counseling. Students learn to correctly diagnose dependence issues and develop unique treatment plans based on individual client needs. Developing relationships with other counselors and professionals is an important part of the program; students go out in the field to learn first-hand from experts already working in the profession.

Classes are varied and geared to the practical application of the skills students are learning: for instance, in Introduction to Substance Abuse, students are required to go into their communities and interview two to three drug and alcohol abuse counselors to find out why they got into the field. In Group & Family Counseling, students sit in on group counseling classes at agencies to evaluate the group process. Another class has students attending several 12-step meetings to think, process, and assess the effectiveness of the 12-step method in aiding recovering addicts. By the time students reach the last class in the program, Practicum in Substance Abuse, they are working on-site and getting practical experience as a counselor.

As Dr. Posson points out, National’s educational approach has an added significant benefit. “By the time students reach the practicum class, most of them have a relationship with the agency directors and the therapists, have worked with them to get the practicum, and the majority get offers from those agencies as soon as they complete their practicum,” he says. “Then they go on and have the post-grad supervision that will lead toward certification.”

Since the National University program is online, enrollment is international. Class sizes remain small, under 20 students. With classes starting monthly, students can enter the program at any time and take as long as they need to complete it. Classes do not have to be taken sequentially; students can start in the middle and loop back to earlier courses as scheduling allows.

Learning from Experience

Dr. Posson was involved in developing the undergraduate certificate program and knows full-well the toll that drug and alcohol abuse can take, particularly on military families. “I’m retired Navy. I completed my master’s degree late in my Navy career and was selected to become a program manager for substance abuse counseling in Italy,” he recalls.

During that time, Dr. Posson began looking into certification and licensure pathways and realized there was no practical way to take the academic courses while still on active duty. Years later, when National University hired him, he was given the opportunity to develop a flexible and accessible educational pathway to training as a counselor. “It is always in the back of my mind to ensure that we can support our military counselors,” says Dr. Posson. “I know many of those in the role of drug and alcohol program advisors have the calling to have an academic pathway while on active duty and this program enables that. My heart calls out to our veterans and our active-duty sailors and their spouses because they experience a different kind of lifestyle that is very stressful and ends up a lot of times in dealing with substance abuse.”

Career Longevity

From the nature of the work, it would seem that there is a high burnout rate for those entering the profession. But while the work can be quite emotionally and physically taxing, most counselors find that their passion for helping others far outweighs any negatives. And with more experience and education, many move into other types of counseling over the course of their careers.

“I think people evolve into other forms of counseling and that most people who come into this field usually stick around,” says Dr. Posson. “For example, only about 20 percent of my private practice now is substance abuse counseling, and that’s because my postdoctoral work led me into neurofeedback which has a much broader application. I’ve treated patients as young as 28 months old and as old as 90. Every type of disorder you can imagine, I’ve worked with, but it all started with substance abuse counseling.”

To take the first step on your path to a career in substance abuse counseling, visit National University’s undergraduate certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling page for more information about courses and requirements.