How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors support and help people with drug and alcohol addictions. The job is difficult and stressful, but can be extremely rewarding for people who enjoy helping others.

Evaluating clients to find out what drugs they are addicted to and identifying the underlying causes of addiction are the first steps to treatment. Many addicts forget what they used to love and only care to get high. Addiction counselors help addicts rebuild and remember the goals and dreams they once had, before drugs became their only hobby.

So what does a substance abuse counselor need to know?  What qualities should they possess?  What training and certifications or degrees do they need?  Let’s find out.

Necessary Personality Traits and Skills Needed

Drug abuse counselors need to possess a complete set of important qualities in order to be successful. Most people who inspire to become counselors:

  • Are compassionate
  • Have good listening skills
  • Have patience
  • Are able to interact well with all types of people
  • Are persistent
  • Have good speaking skills

In order to maintain this job as a career, these skills and personality traits are important. Communication is a key factor, and the ability to relate to people of any educational and economic level is crucial. With the exception of counselors in expensive private retreats that cater to celebrities, the majority of counselors will deal with people from all walks of life, including many homeless people, and every client must be treated with understanding and respect.

Education Needed to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

how to become a substance abuse counselorThe minimum education required to become a substance abuse counselor is a high school diploma. Some of the best drug addiction counselors have past experiences with drug and alcohol addictions. Their unique perspective allows them to relate to their clients and better understand what  they are going through. In group counseling sessions, this personal rapport helps them break down barriers to communication, especially when dealing with people who are naturally suspicious of authority, like prisoners or ex-convicts.

Earning a Master’s Degree for Addiction Counseling

Furthering education by achieving  a Master’s degree is more likely to lead to a more lucrative career in the field. In most states, having a Master’s degree in addiction and substance abuse is necessary in order to be a licensed addiction counselor. More college education means more opportunities for counselors to provide higher-level services to clients, like one-on-one counseling sessions.

Most students working on a Master’s degree in substance abuse counseling start with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Bachelor’s degree in Psychology programs may include specializations in  clinical or health-related studies. This will include courses in individual counseling, crisis intervention, all types of substance abuse, interviewing techniques, case management, group counseling, and treatment planning.

The mandatory courses students take while pursuing a Master’s degree in substance abuse counseling are many.  Drugs and behavior courses help aspiring counselors understand and identify symptoms to gain a better understanding of what an addict is experiencing. This course explains the causes of chemical dependencies caused by specific drugs. It helps the student understand the causes of abusive behavior from a client towards his/her family and friends caused by addiction.

Alcoholism courses approach the subject in a multi-dimensional way. Sociological, psychological, physiological and behavioral factors are covered factors. Teaching students to understand this disease helps prepare them for advanced studies. By understanding the disease, they better understand how to approach and treat alcoholism.

Counseling courses involve various theories for treating those with substance abuse problems. Students learn different methodologies and approaches to treatment programs. Group counseling courses teach interactions within a group, focused for people with substance addiction history. Students learn to work with multiple clients and encourage group members to work with each other. Support groups are an important tool to help clients feel less isolated and alone. Isolation is a common problem for addicts. In a group, they relearn to interact with others unlikely to be judgmental.

Addiction and family impact courses teach how addiction affects the families of addicts. Part of counseling includes dealing with the addict’s family support system. In this course, they learn to help the addict and his family rebuild healthy relationships.

Relapse prevention is an important part of addiction recovery. The recidivism rate is high, and counselors must be able to identify the signs of backsliding and learn to deal with relapses. Many addicts also suffer from mental health issues. Dual diagnosis classes prepare students to deal with both the addiction and the mental health condition. To round out their education, students will be required to take a course in ethics and legal concerns. This will cover laws and court proceedings, along with topics like non-discrimination and client confidentiality.

Many education programs also include clinical experience in the form of an internship at a licensed care facility.

State Licensing for Chemical Dependency and Drug Counselors

The requirements for licensing vary from state to state. Most states require a Master’s degree to obtain a license and thousands of hours of clinical experience under supervision of a licensed practitioner for private practice and to provide one-on-one counseling services. Supervised group counselors may need only a high school degree and on-the job training to practice.

Not every state requires a specific degree. Some require a Master’s degree in any related field, and a state-approved exam.

Starting Your Substance Abuse Counselor Career

Finding a job as a substance abuse counselor won’t be difficult in most areas. Court-ordered drug treatment is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to prison. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs in this field will increase by 27% over the coming years, significantly higher than average.

Salary can vary widely, from $27,000 as a starting point, to $52,000, with the median salary falling in the $38,000 range. Private practitioners can expect to earn far above average.

Substance abuse counselors work in many different types of facilities, such as residential treatment or rehabilitation centers, prisons, halfway houses, juvenile detention facilities, hospitals, private clinics, inpatient or outpatient mental health treatment centers.

Becoming a substance abuse counselor is not for everyone. The job can be difficult and stressful, but  the personal satisfaction of saving a person’s life and of making a difference in the lives of many are very fulfilling.

One Response to How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

  1. Hello. My name is Kevin. I’m 32 years old. I’m very interested in this field and becoming a consoler. I am a recovering alcoholic of close to 18 years. I’ve been through extreme detoxing twice. Once in 2005 and my final time in 2013. Both times, I was not expected to come out the same. Limited speech, brain activity, memory loss, you name it, they said I would have it. The first time, I came out fine, unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson. The second time was the worse. My levels we’re bellow survival. Before they took me off the machines, they had a priest come in and give me my last words, I had a 20 percent chance of survival. Once again, I came back, healthy, and stronger then ever. I am a very fortunate man, and I feel like it is my turn to give back, teach what I have learned, what I have gone through, try to help others, as I can relate to what they are going through. I have also had my experience in drugs. I wear none of this as a badge of honor, but I do believe I have the experience to help those that feel lost and alone. In my heart I truly believe God spared me to do something bigger with my life. I feel as if this is my calling. Sorry for the small rant. I guess my question is, how do I start going about this process? I’ve read a lot online, spoke with some people, so on. I was never good with schooling, I’ve always been more of a “hands on” type of person. I don’t know how deep I want to go in the field, I just know I want to start helping others. I think i’m starting to get a little discouraged by reading how many years, upon years of schooling it takes to become, what I want to become. I would like to get my foot and the door, and go from there, see where the road takes me. Any advice or insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Kevin Kelly

    Kevin March 15, 2015 at 9:31 pm Reply

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