How to Become a Chemical Dependency Counselor


Reviewed By Erika Price, PhD
Counselor listens intently to her client

Though not everyone recognizes chemical dependency as a medical condition, indeed it is - a chronic, relapsing medical condition with devastating personal and social consequences. Chemical dependency counselors help people who suffer from drug dependency to break the cycle of addiction and recover their lives, as well as to overcome the stigma associated with this disease.

These professionals must have a diverse set of skills at their disposal to help clients master both the physical and psychological elements of chemical dependency. Because substance abuse causes neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain, withdrawal creates distressing physical symptoms, sensory symptoms, and even behavioral problems. Concomitant with the physical manifestations of withdrawal are the psychological symptoms it engenders. People often become drug dependent in the first place to help manage overwhelming feelings or distressing circumstances. Remove the mood-altering chemical and the feelings return, often exacerbated by years of abuse.

A chemical dependency counselor is sometimes the only lifeline available to someone suffering from drug dependency. The counselor helps those who are addicted to alcohol, narcotics, prescription medications and other drugs by:

  • Determining the underlying causes of dependence
  • Collaborating with the treatment team to create an individual rehabilitation plan
  • Providing education and emotional support
  • Delivering therapy and other interventions
  • Involving the clients’ loved ones in treatment (with permission)
  • Making referrals to treatment programs and healthcare providers.

Chemical dependency counselors work to create rapport with their clients and understand the roots of their dependency, as well as the ongoing “triggers” that inspire drug use. Many successful counselors are themselves recovering addicts who have earned their stripes in the process of recovery and can draw on their own experiences to both help and inspire their clients. While firsthand experience with addiction is not sufficient or necessary in order to become a drug counselor, it is a common and influential part of many counselors’ pasts.

Once a therapeutic relationship is established, a counselor and client work through the interventions prescribed by the client’s treatment program, which varies depending upon the type of addiction and the nature of the program. During the course of working with a client, behavioral interventions are staged or assigned; emotions are processed; talk therapy is provided; group sessions are attended or facilitated; and treatment sessions with family and friends are scheduled. The client-counselor relationship should be seen as highly collaborative and intimate, with a great deal of intense, honest interaction that is incredibly personalized.

Recovery is a lifelong process; not only must the chemical dependency be overcome, but changes in lifestyle and patterns of thinking and interaction must be made as well. This means that counselors can see clients for months or even years, creating a unique relationship based upon hope, recovery, empathy, and belief in the possibility of ongoing self-improvement. Very few people can claim to have a career that involves positively influencing the lives of other people on a regular basis - a chemical dependency counselor is one of them.

Work Environment

Chemical dependency counselors work in many settings, including:

  • General and psychiatric hospitals
  • Substance abuse treatment facilities
  • Outpatient treatment centers
  • Social service agencies
  • Private practices
  • Halfway houses
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Correctional facilities.

Because addiction counseling involves individuals, families and groups of clients, these professionals spend most of the workday closely interacting with people. Counselors also work closely with other members of the treatment team, including nurses, physicians and social workers.

Chemical dependency counselors must schedule their work around the needs of clients. Therefore, they often respond to crises and provide counseling outside regular business hours. Depending on their work setting, they are on call during nights and weekends. In inpatient facilities, counselors generally work rotating shifts that include evenings, overnights, weekends and holidays.

In all settings, the counselors are subjected to high-pressure scenarios and clients who are victims of poverty, crime, abuse, neglect, and assorted other traumas. Clients can be emotionally demanding, manipulative, verbally or physically abusive, mentally ill, or noncompliant. This can create a stressful and frustrating workplace beset with many setbacks and unique challenges. An aspiring counselor should be aware of the difficulty and stress of the job, as well as the awesome potential to change lives.



Educational requirements for chemical dependency counselors vary by state. Most employers prefer candidates with an associate or bachelor’s degree, depending on the job requirements. The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network maintains a searchable directory of training programs on its website.

A graduate degree in counseling is a must for those who wish to conduct psychotherapy or go into private practice. When enrolling in a graduate program, it is important to choose one that is fully accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Educational programs in Addiction Studies are available throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe; the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network provides information on all of these programs as well.


Depending on their education level and job requirements, chemical dependency counselors can receive a significant portion of their training on the job. Work in outpatient facilities, group therapy facilities, halfway houses, and related facilities may only require on-the-job training, with no prior licensing or certification period whatsoever. During the training, counselors work with experienced clinicians to sharpen their skills and learn to deal with common problems that arise in treatment. “Shadowing” an experienced counselor throughout the work day is a common method of on-the-job training. Slowly, as training continues, a new counselor is integrated into his or her facility and granted more independence.

Licensing and/or Certification

Many (but not all) states license chemical dependency counselors. In order to earn a license, candidates must generally meet education and work experience requirements and pass an exam. Some states offer multiple certification levels based on educational achievement and work experience. The Addiction Technology Transfer Center maintains an online directory of state regulating boards.

In addition to state licensure, counselors often pursue voluntary certification as a National Certified Counselor through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This certification requires a master’s degree in counseling, 3,000 hours of documented work experience and a passing score on the National Counselor Examination. The experience requirement is waived for graduates of CACREP-accredited degree programs.

Experienced chemical dependency counselors often pursue voluntary certification as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC). The NBCC and the American Counseling Association jointly administer the credential. Candidates must have three years of supervised work experience in the field; meet rigorous educational requirements; and pass an exam. In order to renew their state licenses, counselors must fulfill continuing education requirements by taking courses on relevant topics annually.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Because they spend most of the workday interacting with others, chemical dependency counselors should be “people people” who have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. A nonjudgmental attitude and a genuine, empathetic nature are needed to gain the trust of clients and form a strong therapeutic relationship. Finally, these counselors need patience and emotional stability to cope with frequent setbacks in the recovery process.

Opportunities for Advancement

Chemical dependency counselors often further their careers through higher education and extensive work experience. An experienced professional who holds a master's degree can supervise the work of junior counselors or hold an administrative position within treatment centers and social service agencies. Those who hold a doctorate are able to work as professors or conduct research in the field. An advanced degree, national certification and a strong track record of professional development generally increase the potential for advancement. However, the vast majority of chemical dependency counselors work primarily with clients throughout the entirety of their careers.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a chemical dependency counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Salary and Job Outlook Projections

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for chemical dependency counselors is $38,620 per year, with a range of $25,200 to $60,160. Counselors who work for hospitals and local government agencies earn the highest salaries, particularly those with advanced degrees who work in managerial positions. Those who work for social services generally earn an average income. Residential rehabilitation centers often pay below-average salaries. In addition, a lower education level or less work experience also predict a lower income; entry-level counselors often start with an annual income close to the low end of the provided range.

Job opportunities for chemical dependency counselors are expected to increase by 31% between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS. This is due to the fact that more people are seeking treatment for substance abuse problems. In addition, the justice system is ordering more and more offenders into substance abuse treatment programs as a replacement for time in prison or probation. In addition, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides increased coverage for therapeutic services, including chemical dependency treatment, which is expected to cause an increase in the number of people seeking help for drug or alcohol addiction.

Job prospects will be best for counselors with an advanced degree, national certification and a strong track record of professional development.

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