How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor in California

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What is Addictions Counseling?


An addiction counselor is a mental health professional whose job is to help addicts and alcoholics recover from their problems. While many have broader training in psychology and psychotherapy, others are specifically trained to work exclusively with those who suffer from substance abuse disorders.

California, like many states, has been ravaged by the opioid crisis. That epidemic was fueled by pharmaceutical opioids that are distributed to every town in California. Thus, opioid addiction was no longer confined to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and was easily spread wherever there was a pharmacy and a doctor eager to write a prescription for pain medications.

Once suburban and rural Californians were hooked on prescription opioids, some of them found the addiction too hard to fight when the prescription expired. A number of these patients decided to doctor shop for a naive or unscrupulous medical doctor to write a new prescription. Failing that, a number of addicts found a heroin market that could fill their demand.

Now California is addressing the epidemic levels of addiction and overdose by certifying addiction counseling professionals to aid in their treatment. They have implemented a series of certifications that are available to anyone who has at least a high school diploma, can pass the appropriate examination, and otherwise satisfies the state's criteria. Since many addicts who have recovered from their malady often wish to turn around and help those who still suffer, this tiered certification system is a terrific way to start a new career after achieving sobriety.

California also offers provisional certifications for those who wish to get to work while completing the requirements for full certification. There may be people who have degrees in fields that are not related to behavioral science or mental health and they may be able to work under the provisional credentials while they take whatever courses are required by the California board. Depending on their transcripts, they may only need to take a few courses in addiction studies in order to qualify as addiction counselors. However, to earn advanced certifications such as CATC IV, professionals who don't have a degree in addiction studies may need to return to graduate school.


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Addiction Counseling Education in California


All students of addiction studies who wish to work in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers should be sure to find fully accredited programs that are acknowledged by the California board. It may be worthwhile to discuss this with a potential employer who will have current knowledge of what the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California is looking for from applicants. They may have set stipulations for those who may have a degree but not have yet all of the coursework required for certification.

Since the opioid crisis spread opioid and heroin addiction, overdoses, and all of the associated problems to middle America, states and cities have been scrambling to treat those who suffer. This has resulted in a new infrastructure of substance abuse counseling centers, known as drug rehabilitation centers, which need staff. Many states have expanded their licensure systems to include professionals with bachelor’s and even associate degrees as addiction counseling professionals. Each state's licensing system is different, so some bachelor’s degree holders are able to conduct counseling one-on-one with supervision while other states are more restrictive. In most states, a licensed counselor with a master’s degree in counseling psychology or social work can conduct therapy sessions with addicts.

Substance abuse counselors in California have many academic option available to them. There are state-issued credentials available for nearly every degree level. Those who have a passion for helping addicts and alcoholics can start their careers with as little as a high school diploma, provided that they can pass the basic CATC examination. In fact, those who are preparing for the test can work as registered addiction counselors (RAC) or even as registered interns.

From those entry-level certifications, counselors can earn their associate degrees and more. With each subsequent academic degree, they can qualify for the next level of state certification. This can continue through one's doctoral thesis. Additionally, those with nursing degrees can qualify for CATC N certification, assuming they graduated from an accredited nursing program and can pass the requisite examination.

All in all, California has implemented a system that welcomes counselors at all levels. These counselors, no matter what level, all can work together to help the individuals and families impacted by substance abuse disorder.

Associate Degree in Addiction Counseling (AS)

In California, substance abuse counselors can start their careers with an associate degree. The Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California provides credentials to students who have completed an associate degree from a regionally accredited college or university in addiction studies or a related field within the behavioral/health science field.

For those who desire a long-term career as an addiction counselor but who don't yet have a degree, an associate degree is a perfect place to start. Community college credits are typically cheaper than those from a four-year college or university and they will result in licensure and an entry-level position in two years or so. Those who wish to start work in a rehabilitation clinic before graduation can work as a registered addiction counselor who is not yet certified but who is working toward that end. Others can accrue experience as registered interns and thus gain credits along with their experience.

Bachelor's Degree in Addiction Counseling (BS)

In California, a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies or a related behavioral health field will qualify the holder for a CATC III certification. Keep in mind that the bachelor’s degree must come from an accredited college or university. Students who know they wish to pursue a CATC certification should discuss this with their academic adviser.

Undergraduate students should also investigate work as a registered intern. For those who need full-time work, California offers their plain CATC certification which has no academic requirements. Alternately, students might consider the CATC II certification if they have enough credits to qualify for an associate degree.

However, students should focus on achieving their bachelor's degree in addiction studies, psychology, or a related behavioral health or health science field. This level of academic achievement will ensure better jobs, more pay, and it will be easier to apply to graduate school when that time comes.

Master's Degree in Addiction Counseling (MS or MC)

A master’s degree is where an addiction counselor's career really takes off. This academic credential qualifies the holder for a CATC IV certification which is only bested by counselors who hold a doctoral degree. Many substance abuse counselors will pursue a master of science in addiction counseling which will enable them to sit for the CATC IV examination and thus achieve full certification.

Since the California board acknowledges other relevant degrees, students who earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology or clinical mental health counseling can potentially become an addiction or substance abuse counselor. They must first become licensed by the state, but a counselor with a master’s degree from an accredited university should be able to work with patients suffering from substance abuse disorders. They might also consider taking the CATC IV exam if they wish to make addiction counseling a primary focus for their career. However, licensed counselors should consider this option carefully and investigate whether they truly need the CATC IV credential.

PhD Degree in Addiction Counseling (PhD)

The top degree level for addiction counselors is the PhD or doctorate degree. This academic achievement enables degree holders to sit for and hold a CATC V certification. This level of academic achievement is surely less common that a master’s degree, but it will enable the holder to earn more and rise higher in their career. A doctoral degree is more likely to enable the holder to work as a supervisor in a rehabilitation clinic. Those who enter into private counseling practice will be able to charge more for their services, as well.

Students should make sure that their PhD program is fully accredited and accepted by the California Board. While a doctoral degree requires many years of study that culminate in a lengthy dissertation, addiction counselors should all consider this academic degree and the subsequent high-status certification from the California board. Not only does this credential open many doors to employment, but those with this credential have an easier time publishing articles and research papers.

Become an Addiction Counselor in California


Californians who wish to become addictions counselors are in luck. The state has created a series of certifications that welcome nearly anyone who is interested in working to help the state's addicts and alcoholics recover from their terrible substance abuse problems. To become an addiction counselor in California, however, one must first determine that this is the career path for them.

Like many other counselors, addiction and substance abuse counselors often come to the profession as a result of some sort of personal experience. Many addiction counselors have themselves been victims of substance abuse disorder or have had loved ones who suffered. Most often, aspiring counselors have first-hand or second-hand experience with recovery and thus they believe in the process and the miracles that can occur when people who suffer from these disorders are able to obtain help.

California's regulations insist that addiction and substance abuse counseling professionals all have state-issued certification to work with those who suffer with substance abuse disorder. Luckily, nearly anyone can qualify for a certification and get to work. Even those with no college credits can study and pass the CATC exam and find an entry-level position. The state even has a provisional certification called the registered addiction counselor which can be achieved while the worker strives to complete the full requirements.

From that point, addiction counselors can work their way through school and earn an addiction counseling degree in California. Those with an associate degree can pass the exam and earn their CATC II credential. With a bachelor degree and fulfillment of other requirements, counselors can earn their CATC III certification. The certifications go through the CATC V level, which is available to those with a doctoral degree. Finally, California offers nurses the option of achieving their CATC N certification, provided that their nursing school is fully accredited and that they meet all of the other requirements.

Becoming an addiction counselor is not an easy process. However, if one is passionate about helping addicts and alcoholics overcome their substance abuse disorder, California has created a low barrier to entry into the profession. Further, once a counselor has achieved their certification, they can use that credential to seek work anywhere in the state. They may even find that other states recognize their professional status and will allow them to continue working as substance abuse counselors in rehabilitation clinics in their state.

Careers for Addiction Counseling Graduates


  • School Counselor:
    In California, students who wish to become school counselors need to earn a master’s degree. They will probably also need to hold a teaching license from the state of California. These counselors work exclusively with children in their schools. School counselors help students overcome the personal and social issues that may impact their academic and developmental performance.
  • Clinical Social Worker:
    When students pursue a master of social work degree, they can enter the workforce in any number of jobs. Many will choose to become licensed clinical social workers and thus work with clients in a therapeutic environment. Clinical social workers can work with those who suffer with substance abuse disorder but also those coping with depression, anxiety, or family issues.
  • Adult and Geriatric Counselor:
    There are counselors who specialize in all sorts of demographics and disorders. Those who focus on adult and geriatric counseling work with the aging and aged populations to help them cope with the issues that come with age. Some of these counselors may work through assisted living communities but they can also maintain a private practice.
  • Sports Psychologist:
    Those trained in sports psychology help their clients overcome any sort of mental block that prevents them from succeeding as athletes. Some work with top pro athletes but others may apply their psychological knowledge as coaches. In fact, some run sports clinics and use their academic credentials to assure parents that their children will receive the very best coaching possible.
  • Group Counselor or Therapist:
    Counselors often have options for how they choose to run their practice. One option is to conduct group therapy sessions. For some counselors, this may be their primary focus, while others might only facilitate group therapy sessions once a week or not at all. Typically, a group counselor or therapist will have a master’s degree in clinical psychology as a minimum requirement.
  • Career Counselor:
    While many students are focused and have clear career goals when they enter the university doors, others are not certain at all. Career counselors work with all sorts of students to help them assess their talents, clarify their goals, and achieve their dreams. Career counselors might also work as administrators who organize focused career fairs for students, among other duties.

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