What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor? A Career Path in Clinical Mental Health

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Substance abuse counselor working with patient

Drug and alcohol abuse continues to be a global problem, and today more than ever, qualified addiction counselors are needed to help combat this epidemic. The statistics are staggering. For example, a report by Optum found that someone dies of an opioid overdose every 13 minutes in America. Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that in 2015, more than 15.1 million adults age 18 and up suffered from an alcohol use disorder.

Professionals who have an interest in helping people cope with and overcome addiction may be drawn to a career as a substance abuse counselor. Completing an advanced education, such as an online master’s in counseling, can provide the skills and acumen needed to be successful in this field.

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Substance abuse counselors work with people who are working to overcome one or more addictions, for example, addictions to alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs like heroin. In addition to needing to evaluate clients’ mental health, physical health and openness to treatment, addiction counselors help clients to develop treatment and recovery plans.

For example, some addiction counseling clients may need to avoid social situations where other people might be using. Counselors may also need to help clients to identify and to mitigate possible relapse triggers, such as stress, depression and social isolation.

Recovering from addiction is difficult, but when therapeutic alliances develop, clients are more likely to discuss their hardships, which can help them on their path to recovery. Consequently, professionals who pursue this career path play an important role in the field of clinical mental health counseling.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Individuals interested in pursuing a career as a substance abuse counselor will need to start by obtaining an education. Although the educational requirements to work as an addiction counselor vary based on the job description and state licensing agency, most states require candidates to possess at least a bachelor’s degree.

Students must also complete a set number of supervised training hours before they can take a licensing exam. For example, California requires counselors to complete a minimum of 3,000 supervised hours, over a minimum of two years, before they can apply to become a licensed professional clinical counselor. The number of supervised training hours that counselors need to complete varies by state. As such, prospective substance abuse counselors will want to research their states’ licensing procedures. Completing a master’s degree has additional benefits. Aspiring addiction counselors who complete a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling degree often find that they are well prepared to take the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) to become certified, which is required to become a licensed counselor in many states. Graduate degree holders also tend to have more job prospects and career advancement opportunities.

Substance Abuse Counselor Skills, Job Growth and Salary

Substance abuse counselors work in various environments, including government and private sector agencies, community clinics, inpatient care facilities, and private practice. Some work with clients one-on-one, while others work with clients in a group setting. Yet regardless of the setting, the skills counselors need to successfully treat patients are uniform.

For example, substance abuse counselors must be able to recommend and review treatment goals, in addition to understanding how to help clients to identify situations and environments that might be stressful and thus have a negative impact on their recovery. Substance abuse counselors must also be effective at educating clients’ families about addiction disorders and help them to develop strategies to cope with their loved one’s addiction.

Professionals wanting to find out more about what a substance abuse counselor is may be interested to learn that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of substance abuse counselors to grow by 22% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average projected growth for all other occupations. The BLS further reports that the median annual wage for substance abuse counselors was $44,630 in 2018, although earners in the top 10th percentile reported annual earnings of more than $72,990.

Learn More

If you have a desire to work in a field that allows you to provide support for individuals who suffer from alcohol dependency and substance abuse, you are likely to find that an advanced degree can help you toward that goal. Learn more about how completing an online Master of Arts in Counseling – Clinical Mental Health Counseling track from Wake Forest University can help you drive positive change in your clients’ lives.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance Abuse vs. Addiction

Why Now Is the Right Time to Pursue Your Master’s in Counseling


California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, Licensure Requirements

Houston Chronicle, “What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?”

National Board for Certified Counselors, State Licensure

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Facts and Statistics

Optum, Working to End the Opioid Epidemic

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families

The Cabin Group, The 10 Most Common Addiction Relapse Triggers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors