The job requirements for a substance abuse counselor depend on many different factors including location, type of position, facility, and level of responsibility. Generally speaking, jobs requiring a degree and license will entail far more responsibility offer higher pay.
For any position in the field, a candidate needs certain personal traits and skills do do the work. These include:
State certification requirements vary. In some states, substance abuse counselors are required to have a college education. Others require only a high school education and some on-the-job training. In any state, more education will mean more responsibility, better pay and chances for career advancement.
Substance abuse counseling is one of those jobs where personal experience is a great teacher. Ex-addicts make some of the most effective counselors. They’ve been there. They can relate to their clients in a personal, empathetic way. They know what worked for them and they understand how difficult it is to fight relapse.
Many people working as counselors who do not have a degree in the field are former addicts. Typical employers require a high school diploma or equivalency and at least two years of sobriety before they will consider hiring a candidate.
Counselors with no degree have little chance of advancement. In most states, they can work only in a group counseling setting. Much like a social worker, their jobs will include helping addicts find work and places to live, setting clients up in community-resource support like Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) or the Secular Organization for Sobriety programs, and monitoring their treatment progress.
In terms of personal fulfillment, a job helping others is high on the list. But this job comes with frustrations. Addicts will turn back to their addictions again and again. Counselors just have to understand and help them start over, as many times as it takes.
When people with only a high school diploma and personal experience are hired to work in a substance abuse counseling job, they usually go through an on-the-job training program where they shadow a supervisor and learn counseling methods, case management skills, and record keeping. Most states require ongoing supervision by a licensed counselor, which limits career advancement.
Some positions require higher education, most typically a Master’s degree. It takes four to six years to earn a Master’s, depending on the number of courses you take. Some students are able to shorten the time by taking dual-enrollment classes in high school, attending college year-round, or taking more than the recommended course load.
As with any degree program, students start with the basics to earn an A.A. or an A.S. degree. They can major in any subject at this point, but it’s helpful to take courses that relate to nursing, psychology, or other medical fields, plus computer skills.
Following the Associate’s degree, students go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in a related field. For example, they may pursue a B.A. with a major in psychology, pharmacology, or social work.
Next, aspiring substance abuse counselors earn a Master’s degree, either a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.). There are different related areas of study to major in that will qualify students for a career in the field. The important thing is to find a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP), which is accepted in most states.
To work in a supervisory position or open a private practice, states require a degree plus practical experience in the form of clinical hours. While each state defines its own requirements, most require 2,000 to 3,000 hours. Some or all of these hours may be included as part of a Master’s degree program. Students learn hands-on techniques in a live setting by interacting with clients and learning active listening techniques, how to diagnose, administer treatment, make a treatment plan, keep records, and many other critical skills.
Entry level positions usually require no certification or license. The person in charge of the facility will be licensed. If your goal is to open a private practice or run a facility, you’ll need to meet educational and experience substance abuse counselor requirements, pass a state licensing exam and be certified.
Only one thing is true all over the country: the more education, certification, and licenses you acquire, the higher your earning potential.