How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

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Group of people in a counselling session

Substance abuse counselors continue to be in demand across the U.S., and the need is growing because of increasing rates of drug, alcohol, and nicotine addictions. According to recent data, 1 in every 10 Americans suffers from a form of drug addiction. Alcoholism, moreover, has affected more than 16 million Americans in the past seven years. While these statistics present a distressing situation, they also illustrate the vital importance of addiction treatment centers and professional counseling services all over the country.

Students who are interested in how to become substance abuse counselors can pursue a bachelor’s degree and, afterward, complete a master’s degree as part of licensing requirements. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there is a positive employment prospect for substance abuse counselors, with as many as 23,800 additional counselors needed by 2026.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Although counseling careers in government may require only a high school diploma, along with addiction counseling courses and supervised work experience, the minimum employment requirement for a substance abuse counselor is a bachelor’s degree.

Students who plan to find employment in a private facility must attain their bachelor’s degrees and licenses before they can be allowed to practice as substance abuse counselors. To attain licenses, counselors will need to complete as many as 4,000 hours of clinical experience under the direction of a supervising counselor. A master’s degree in mental health counseling is also a requisite in the filing for a license in some states.

In addition to supervised clinical experience and higher education, substance abuse counselors need to pass their state examinations. The National Board for Certified Counselors oversees and provides the licensing exam for qualified applicants. To continue in their practice and maintain their licenses, substance abuse counselors will need to fulfill a continuing education requirement on an annual basis. In some states, such as Hawaii, counselors are required to pass an oral exam before earning their credentials.

According to BLS, counselors with master’s degrees might have more job prospects. A bachelor’s or master’s degree isn’t required to become a substance abuse counselor in some states or in some private work environments, such as peer-to-peer counseling programs that employ former addicts who are in long-term recovery. However, both degrees remain basic requirements for mental health counseling careers.

A master’s program in mental health counseling can provide valuable training in counseling as well as advanced-level practicum and internship experience. The curriculum for a master’s degree in the discipline may include core courses such as research and statistical analysis in counseling, cultures and counseling, crisis management, and career development, among others.

Career Basics

Substance abuse counselors work with those who suffer from alcohol abuse, drug dependency and other forms of substance addiction. Because addiction often has its roots in trauma, many addiction professionals employ techniques that not only help reduce the addiction behaviors but heal the deeper psychological wounds.

These counselors’ responsibilities can range from patient assessment to collaboration with other health professionals. Substance abuse counselors typically start with an evaluation of a patient’s mental state and an estimation of the patient’s capacity for treatment. In consultation with the patient’s family and health care professionals, counselors may recommend specific treatment plans. They may also identify possible behavioral patterns that affect recovery. In the event that the patient requires the help of other health care experts, substance abuse counselors may also work with social workers, psychiatrists and doctors.

Certain soft skills, such as compassion, listening skills, patience and empathy, help substance abuse counselors treat patients with mental health problems more effectively.

Career Opportunities and Job Outlook

According to BLS, the job outlook for substance abuse counselors across the country remains high, with employment opportunities expected to grow by as much as 23 percent within a 10-year period (2016 to 2026). This is a significantly higher employment growth rate compared with other occupations, which are projected to grow at an average of 7 percent for the same period. BLS reports that substance abuse counselors, along with mental health counselors, earned a median salary of $43,300 in 2017.

Substance abuse counselors can find work in many settings, such as government agencies, private and state hospitals, outpatient centers, and residential facilities. According to May 2017 BLS data, those who were employed in government agencies had a median annual wage of $50,600, while those employed at residential facilities earned a median annual wage of $37,210.

The demand for mental health counselors and substance abuse counselors is expected to grow in the coming years, especially with the emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation for individuals with addiction who are also involved in the criminal system.  Students interested in how to become a substance abuse counselor can also benefit from an increased demand for counseling professionals who can help military veterans impacted by both mental health and addiction concerns.

More than 20 million Americans over the age of 12 were found to have an addiction problem in 2015. This necessitates the assistance of experienced professionals who are specifically trained in substance abuse and mental health counseling. Students and professionals who plan to pursue this career can start on their journeys by working toward their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Learn More

Pursuing a master’s degree in counseling can fit into most professionals’ busy lives and schedules. Wake Forest University offers an online master’s in mental health counseling that delivers its rigorous curriculum in a flexible format so working adults can earn their graduate degrees while working full time. Visit the program website to learn more.

Recommended Readings:

Many Faces of Counseling
What to Expect in Counseling Courses
Picking the Right Degree for You: Master of Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Counseling


Addiction Center
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Houston Chronicle
Promises Treatment Center
Wake Forest University