How to Be a Substance Abuse Counselor


Counselor listening to his client

Substance abuse counselors experience the rare opportunity to transform people's lives. While the challenges of this job are extraordinary, the level of job satisfaction is, too, as there are few accomplishments as gratifying as wresting back a life commandeered by addiction. Substance abuse is widespread—there are more than 17 million alcoholics alone in the United States today—and it wreaks havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it.

Substance abuse counselors help addicts with both crisis- and long-term management issues that range from finding immediate medical help to preventing a return to addiction. Counselors help their clients find housing, employment, medical help, and peer support through groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). A substance abuse counselor is also available to his client for moral support, as the transformative changes that recovery requires can be daunting.

Work Environment

Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of environments including hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and governmental facilities such as prisons, juvenile detention centers and probation offices. Working hours include days, evenings, nights, and weekends and jobs are usually full time.

The workplace of a counselor is characterized by strength in the face of challenge. Counselors must remain a source of emotional strength and steadfastness to a large caseload of clients, some of whom are under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in the midst of emotional crisis. Recidivism in this line of work is high; a substance abuse counselor must be able to navigate his own emotions when some clients inevitably return to drug or alcohol use. These counselors rely on good stress management skills and emotional maturity in order to thrive in a work environment that poses unique challenges.



Requirements for a job as a substance abuse counselor depend on the hiring agency. Some counselors have a high school diploma and certification while others have a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. Since some of the best substance abuse counselors are those who have overcome addiction themselves, this is one of the few jobs where a degree from the school of hard knocks can outweigh university schooling. Counselors with more education will be trusted with less immediate supervision and licensed counselors can provide one-on-one counseling.


A substance abuse counselor who has a bachelor’s or master’s degree will not likely need any training. However, those counselors who have only a high school diploma do require training, which is almost always on the job and with the particular clientele the counselor will serve.

Licensing and/or Certification

Substance abuse counselors who wish to open a private practice must have a license. To achieve licensure requires a master’s degree and 2,000-3,000 hours of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Counselors must also pass a licensing exam in the state where they wish to practice. Licensing requirements vary from state to state; the National Board for Certified Counselors can provide information about state regulating boards.

Requirements for counselors who do not have a private practice also vary from state to state. Information about state licensing boards can be found at the Addiction Technology Transfer Center.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Substance abuse counselors must possess excellent listening and speaking skills and be able to communicate with a broad spectrum of people with varying educational levels. Compassion must inform their desire to work in this field, as the clientele is a challenging one that can resist treatment. Counselors must be able to maintain calm under duress. A fundamentally optimistic nature also helps, as the road to recovery tends to be a long and hard one.

Opportunities for Advancement

Opportunities for advancement are most likely for those counselors who work in hospitals or residential facilities that employ multiple counselors. Counselors can advance to supervisory, management and/or training positions; higher education, specialized training, years of experience, and rapport with clients and co-workers will determine how far and how fast a substance abuse counselor advances.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a substance abuse counselor is $41,090. Salaries vary from $25,200 (the median wages of the bottom 10%) to $60,160 (the median salary of the top 10%). Pay is highest for counselors who work in hospitals while those who work in residential facilities tend to receive the lowest rate of pay for this job.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in this field to grow by 31% from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster than average job growth.

Courts have recognized that offenders sentenced to drug or alcohol rehabilitation rather than jail are less likely to re-offend, contributing to an increased need for substance abuse counselors. This shift from jail time to rehabilitation also reduces the burden of overcrowding in our prisons.

Job growth is further aided by the fact that a growing number of health insurance plans cover substance abuse counseling. Under recent federal law, insurance plans must cover mental health matters in the fashion that they cover chronic illnesses.

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