How to Become a Chemical Dependency Counselor


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 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. Concomitant with the physical manifestations of withdrawal are the psychological symptoms it engenders. People often become drug dependent in the first place to help them manage overwhelming feelings. 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. This professional 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 the dependency. 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. Once a therapeutic relationship is established, a counselor and client work through the interventions prescribed by the client’s treatment program, which vary depending upon the type of addiction and the nature of the program.

Recovery is a lifelong process; not only must the chemical dependency be overcome but changes in lifestyle and patterns of thinking and interaction made as well. This means that counselors can see clients for months or even years—creating a unique relationship based upon hope, recovery and belief in the possibility of ongoing self-improvement. Very few people can claim to have a career in the realm of positive transformation—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 practice

Because addiction counseling involves individuals, families and groups of clients, these professionals spend most of the workday 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 some nights and weekends. In inpatient facilities, counselors generally work rotating shifts that include evenings, overnights, weekends and holidays.



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).


Depending on their education level and job requirements, chemical dependency counselors can receive a significant portion of their training on the job. During this period, they work with experienced clinicians to sharpen their skills and learn to deal with common problems that arise in treatment.

Licensing and/or Certification

Many (but not all) states license chemical dependency counselors. 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 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 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.

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. 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.

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.


The median annual salary for chemical dependency counselors is $38,000 per year and the range starts at $24,690 and moves up to $60,400. Counselors who work for hospitals and local government agencies earn the highest salaries. Those who work for social services generally earn an average income. Residential rehabilitation centers often pay below-average salaries.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for chemical dependency counselors are expected to increase by 27% between 2010 and 2020. During the same period, employment at residential addiction facilities is expected to grow by 44 percent. 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.

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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