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What Does a Career in Substance Abuse Counseling Entail?
Substance abuse counseling is increasingly in demand. Unfortunately, the rise of methamphetamine and opioid addictions have exploded the nation's alcohol and drug abuse and addiction problem. While there may be systemic solutions, substance abuse and mental health counselors must work to heal the damages done to individuals and their families. Thus, if you have an interest in working in mental health, addiction, and substance use disorders treatment and counseling services, you should consider working toward a master's degree in counseling for those dealing with addiction and substance use issues.
If you become a substance abuse counselor, it will entail many long hours working with recovering addicts to help them regain a productive life free from alcohol and drug and substance use disorders. Your days might include listening to some very hard stories, as addicts frequently descend to dark places. Addicts also have deep wounds from childhood or even adolescent and adult traumas that must be faced and worked through.
Many substance abuse counselors work in rehabilitation clinics, though you may also found a private practice. These are found in a wide range of settings, including urban office parks, pastoral ranches, and hospitals. Your daily routine could involve staff and treatment team meetings to discuss patients and perhaps disturbances in the patient population. You will interact with patients in counseling sessions, but also in classroom settings where you will educate your patients on issues like relapse prevention. You may also find yourself working as a part of human services in a related field or provide social work support in your local city.
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Components of A Successful Career in Substance Abuse Counseling
A successful career in substance abuse counseling is first built on a degree. However, the stipulations for your education will vary from state to state and the precise licensure level you seek. Thus, you may be able to work in the field with a high school diploma and a certified substance abuse counselor certification in some places. Other states require only an associate degree, but most are likely to require at least a bachelor’s degree as the minimum criteria for becoming a substance abuse and mental health professional.
Along the way to licensure, most states will require that you work for a prescribed number of supervised hours under either certified addiction counselors or mental health counselors who can sign off on your work. This will give you time to work with a mentor and discover the best practices for applying your knowledge to helping those with substance use disorders.
During the course of your career, you will need to complete continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain any license you earn. Thus, if you finished a two-year or lower, degree program you might pursue more college credits to both satisfy the state requirements and also advance your career. By doing so, you can earn a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree in counseling program, which usually takes two years to complete, and gain access to even more careers in the field.
How to Earn an Online Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling
Typical Online Addiction Counseling Degree Requirements
To attain a degree, your online program will have a set of courses and other requirements that you need to pass with satisfactory grades. These courses can include, but are not limited to:
- Introduction to Addiction
- Counseling Theories
- Ethics in Counseling
- Trauma and Addiction
Typical Substance Abuse Counseling Certifications Needed
On top of your degree in substance abuse counseling, you will want professional, national certification that will help you hone your knowledge and skills. A national certification will also be very helpful if you need to transfer to another state. For example, the National Association for Addiction Professionals (NAAP) has an array of credentials you can earn through coursework and examinations.
Their three core certifications are:
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II
- Master Addiction Counselor with Co-Occurring Disorders Component (MAC)
There are also other state and national certifications such as:
Academic Standards for Online Substance Abuse Counseling Degree
Your online program is sure to have its own academic standards for their online degree program for substance abuse counseling. However, you should strive to score as high as possible on every test and term paper. When you combine high grades with an accredited degree, you will find that you have more job opportunities, higher salary, and then when you want to move on to earn a master's degree or higher you will find more and better opportunities in mental health counseling or a related field.
Exam/Experience Needed for Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees
To complete most online academic degree programs, you will only need to satisfy the general requirements of your program, which should cover state licensure requirements. Those might involve courses that involve field work. For instance, the course human development frequently involves fieldwork. However, once you graduate and seek certification or licensure, you will face another examination.
To achieve a CDAC, LDAC, or NAADAC certification or license you will need to fulfill the minimum experience, academic, and examination requirements.
There are three academic degree levels for you to achieve as a Substance Abuse Counselor: Associates, Bachelors, and Masters. As you move from the two-year degree and up, you'll find that your earnings and responsibilities increase in kind. Keep in mind that you will probably need to attain a certificate or state licensure that will likely require more coursework, experience, or examinations.
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Online Associate Degree
In many states, an online Associate’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling is enough to start working in the field. You might even be able to work with a high school diploma and a certificate, but with a two-year degree your career will be on more solid academic grounds. Further, you will be able to return to school later and take your career even further.
Your online program might include courses that include, but are not limited to:
- Introduction to Substance Abuse Counseling
- Theories of Counseling
- Introduction to Psychology
- Women and Addiction
Online Bachelor’s Degree
Once you have graduated with a four-year degree in Addictions Counseling, you’ll be considered well-qualified in the field. Most employers will be looking for counselors who have a four-year degree and will prefer them in their hiring practices. Further, you will likely receive higher pay and more responsibilities than your colleagues who have associate degrees.
Your coursework for an online bachelor's degree can include, but will not be limited to:
- Addiction Counseling Theory
- Counseling Skills
- Psychology of Addiction Counseling
- Healthcare Ethics
Online Master’s Degree
A Master’s degree is a goal that every addictions counselor should have in mind. When you work with a graduate degree, your status is immediately raised above the others. You might move into a management position, and your salary will hit new highs.
The coursework for an online master's degree is likely to be far more challenging than what you experienced in your undergraduate program. However, by this point you'll be a dedicated professional who relishes a new challenge, provided that it's in the service of your clients.
Courses can include, but are not limited to:
- Evidenced-Based Practices for Co-Occurring Disorders
- Etiology, Screening, and Assessment of Co-Occurring Disorders
- Introduction to Professional Co-Occurring Disorders Counseling
- Lifespan Development
In most fields, your career path is largely dependent on two factors: your education and your experience. In the field of substance abuse counseling, you can add a third factor, which is certification. However, each certificate level in turn requires a certain degree and time in the field.
Thus, each time you graduate with a higher degree, you can attain a higher certification level. As your credentials improve so will your salary. Your job opportunities will expand and so will your overall satisfaction. When you deepen your knowledge and discover newer and better ways to practice addictions counseling, you’ll see better results. After all, everyone enters the field with the goal of providing solutions to problems.
Substance Abuse Counseling Salaries by Occupation
For every general job description, there is a corresponding degree and experience level that employers require. That's because each job type encompasses certain assumptions about the skill level and efficacy of the applicant or employee. Consequently, each job description brings with it a different salary range. The following occupations are all somewhat similar, but each has its own set of degree, certification, and experience qualifications.
Substance Abuse Counseling Occupations
- Substance Abuse Counselor:
While many substance abuse counselors are themselves recovered addicts or alcoholics, that is not a necessary requirement. However, you will need to have strong communication skills, a lot of patience, and the ability to divorce yourself from patient outcomes. That is, more often than not, addicts will relapse despite everyone's best intentions and hard work and you’ll need to be prepared for that and able to work through it.
- Program Manager:
As a program manager, you will employ your knowledge as an experienced counselor to oversee your fellow counselors. You might assign counselors to work with certain patients according to personality type or the overall patient needs, relative to the strengths of your staff members. You may still have patients in your caseload, but that is likely to be a smaller part of your day. Perhaps you will see a few outpatient clients from a rehabilitation program.
- Rehabilitation Director:
As an executive director, you will likely spend the majority of your time working in administration. You will receive reports from your program managers as well as employees in accounting and even marketing. Your experience as a counselor and manager will be a great asset as you'll have the insight to work effectively with your team. Some directors even conduct meetings with patients or have other hands-on interactions.
- Clinical Psychologist:
When you achieve a graduate or doctoral degree you can attain a state license to call yourself a clinical psychologist. Clinical psychologists most often work in offices and see patients on an individual or group basis. In this profession, you can carve out whatever specialty you desire, whether that be addictions, traumas, or personality disorders.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker:
When you become an LCSW, you can opt to work in a wide range of fields and environments. You could become a staffer in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, a clinician in private practice, or an educator who works with drug offenders in prisons. This degree and licensure open a diverse array of job possibilities and a career filled with satisfaction.
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Annual Salary by Occupation (Range)
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Substance Abuse Counselor||$35,800||$41,500||$48,600|
|Certified Addiction Drug and Alcohol Counselor||$35,800||$41,500||$48,600|
|Licensed Clinical Social Worker||$48,100||$59,400||$65,100|
Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)
How long does it take to earn a Substance Abuse Counseling bachelor's degree online?
You can complete online programs offering degrees in substance abuse counseling or mental health counseling in as little as two years, and there are even one-year certificate programs. However, you will be better served by graduating with a two-year associate degree or even a four-year bachelor’s. When you become enrolled in an online program, try to minimize your expenses so that you can prioritize your degree program over work. When you focus on your studies and your true passions you are bound to have the best long-term success and satisfaction.
How much does an online Substance Abuse Counseling bachelor’s degree cost?
Educational costs vary from school to school. However, if you strive for a two-year online associate degree, you can potentially graduate for as little as $10,000. However, a full four-year degree can cost up to $30,000, or much more, depending on whether you take courses through lower cost schools such as community colleges. Some students attend elite private universities that can total around $300,000 for a bachelor's degree.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
Many colleges and universities will have psychology departments, but if you are set on being a Substance Abuse Counselor, you should look for a college that offers the specific training you need. Once you find a few online programs that offer addictions counseling, dig a little deeper and see how they compare on their details. For instance, some might offer more courses that focus on adolescents and addiction, while other online programs might weigh more heavily on other sub-specialties. Though both might lead to certification or licensure, make sure you are headed into an online program that will best suit you and thus help you best serve your patients.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
These days, it's increasingly rare for students to complete a four-year degree in four years. Even the government's studies show this; their new baseline measure is a six-year completion.
Their conclusions are essentially that your likelihood of graduating "on time" increases with the relative competitiveness of your college. They also show that women are more likely to graduate in six years or less.
Ultimately, strive to remain focused on your studies and long-term goals. When you prioritize your education above short-term material or financial concerns you will have a far happier outcome. In the field of Addictions Counseling, this is a lesson you can pass along to your patients.
What kind of accreditation does the online program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
No matter what level of degree you work towards, make sure that it at least is regionally accredited by a body that is part of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. This will ensure that most employers will acknowledge your education, and thus your certification. You can also use that accredited degree to apply to a higher degree, such as a graduate degree.
You might also seek a program with national certification from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Program or the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission. These are national accreditations that will carry the most weight nationwide. Thus, if you were to graduate from a CACREP or NASAC program in Georgia, your credentials would surely be recognized by graduate schools in Washington, or any other state.
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Software, Technology and Skills Needed
Addictions counseling is not a field that requires much in the way of special technological skill. However, it does require that you have other skills that are perhaps more difficult to master. These skills include things like compassion, empathy, listening, and discernment.
That is, the skills you will need to succeed as an addiction counselor are more difficult to define and measure. They will also vary depending on the person you are working with. You may have to learn to understand people from a different class and ethnicity, for instance.
To help fund your education, seek out scholarships and grants. These don't need to be repaid and can even benefit you in the long term. Such awards will look great on your resume.
Amount: $5,000 (15 Awards)
Deadline: Only the first 15 to enter the program and qualify get the scholarship
This scholarship fund is for the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. This award will provide $5,000 for first time students who enroll in the Master of Arts in Addiction Counseling: Advanced Practice Program. This is an on-campus program provided by one of the nation's pioneering Addictions Counseling institutions.
California Resident Scholarship
Deadline: December 1 (Winter); April 1 (Summer); August 1 (Fall)
This scholarship pays up to $10,000 and is available for all California residents who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in Addiction Studies and Counseling. Along with your completed application, you must include a two-page essay that details your commitment to the field, your experience, and why you are deserving of the award.
William L. White Scholarship
Amount: $1,000 (Undergraduate); $2,000 (Graduate)
Deadline: May 31
This scholarship fund is part of NAADAC's commitment to supporting addictions professionals. There are two awards, one each to a graduate and an undergraduate student. The undergraduate will receive $1,000 and the graduate student wins $2,000. To win, you must submit a stellar research paper written to answer that year's topic. Previous years' topics include "Social Justice and Substance Use Disorders" and "Recovery Oriented Systems of Care: How Research is Changing the Addiction Profession." You must also have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.7 or higher and be a current NAADAC student member.
NAADAC Minority Fellowship Program
Amount: $15,000 (40 Awards)
Deadline: January 25
This scholarship program awards up to $15,000 to minority students and even includes a travel stipend so that you can attend special training sessions. Among a host of qualifications, you must be a citizen of the United States or have permanent resident status, be currently enrolled in an appropriate program, be committed to attaining a state credential and do so by the end of the fellowship term, demonstrate a strong commitment to becoming a National Certified Counselor (NCC) prior to graduation, and your program must be accredited by the National Addictions Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC).
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP)
Amount: Up to $20,000
Deadline: Varies (Previously March 18)
This is a fantastic opportunity to win a prestigious scholarship that happens to pay up to $20,000 per year to cover your tuition, school expenses, and even part of your living expense. You should apply to this program if you would like to pursue deeper research into the problem of addiction. This scholarship can be renewed for up to four years. You must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.3 or higher, be a United States citizen or a permanent resident, and demonstrate exceptional financial need. The program includes research training at the National Institute of Health as well as a job after you graduate.
Alumni Referral Scholarship
If you have a colleague who is an alumnus of the school, they can refer you and help you knock $500 off of your first year's tuition. You do not qualify if you are an employee of Hazelden Betty Ford, or if you are using an organizational discount.
American Addiction Centers Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship Program:
Amount: $5,000 (1st Place); $2,500 (2nd Place); $2,500 (3rd Place)
Deadline: April 30
This fund disburses a total of $10,000 in scholarship assistance to students who are seeking to help those suffering from addiction. Qualified applicants include students studying nursing, psychology, social work, family therapy, or any other area that might positively impact the growing problem of addiction. To enter, you must submit a short, 500-word, first-person essay that responds to a prompt on AAC's website.
Professional Substance Abuse Counseling Organizations
National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors
This is one of the premier professional associations for Drug Abuse Counselors. They work to promote the larger cause of treating addictions by including a wide array of professionals. As a member, you will be able to take advantage of continuing education opportunities, the association will lobby for your profession before Congress, and you can network with your colleagues at conferences and workshops throughout the year. NAADAC certification is also vital to furthering and enhancing your career.
National Board for Certified Counselors
This isn't so much a professional association as it is an organized body that confers top-level certifications such as the Masters Addictions Counselor (MAC). To achieve this distinction, you must demonstrate outstanding achievement in academics, examination, under supervision, as well as appropriate ethical qualifications. You must first be a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and then have the required number of graduate credits, among other qualifications. Certified professionals will be privy to special publications, free continuing education, and many other special offers.
National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers
Members of NAATP are eligible to receive special newsletters, educational resources, and ethical guidance, among other benefits. The association also provides resources that facilitate networking and information sharing among addiction professionals.
Choosing an Accredited Online College
Whether your college is accredited by a regional accrediting body that is a member of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions or if it's nationally recognized by CACREP or NASAC, make sure that it does have full accreditation. Without proper accreditation, you will not be able to transfer credits to other undergraduate programs, nor will you be eligible to apply for graduate school. Make sure that every course you take is from an accredited body, or simply be aware of the status associated with your non-accredited coursework.
Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid
There are plenty of online programs for substance abuse counseling that allow you to stay at home and study without scheduling conflicts. However, make sure that you are able to dedicate yourself to full-time study and don't allow yourself to become distracted. If your passion is to help addicts find recovery and a new way of life, make sure you are showing up for them.
If there is an online accredited program in your local area, you might also consider attending classes on-campus. Some people feel that their outcomes are better taking this traditional route but consider what feels best for you. If you are young, you might wish to move away for such an experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does the College Have Post Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Before you enroll, make sure that your online program is connected with potential employers or other resources that will promote your career. Discuss other matters such as state and national certificates or licenses, graduate school preparation, and alumni experiences. You want to receive the sort of education that prepares you for future examinations or continuing education opportunities. Make sure that you are building a future when you sign up for classes.
Why You Need to Consider the Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
Ratings and accreditations are often downplayed, but they make a huge difference when it comes to employment and salary. Employers are more likely to allow tuition reimbursement if your online program is highly ranked and fully accredited. Further, your job prospects go up according to the ranking your school has received.
What’s something I should look for in a substance abuse counseling program?
One thing you want to look for is the proper accreditation. Not only can you find schools which are regionally accredited, meaning you will be able to gain access to federal student funding, but you can also find programs that are accredited by NAADAC, an association of addiction professionals; the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC); etc. Another thing that you might want to check is the access to hands-on experiences offered either by the school or with an associated organization. Many counseling careers, including those in substance abuse counseling, require that graduates have some number of hours working under the supervision of an already licensed counselor. By gaining some of these hours in school, you can come out ahead of your peers when it comes to gaining full licensure and the career you’re looking for.
Where can I work outside a rehab facility or private practice?
There are definitely other options when it comes time to find a job in this field. You might find a job with in-patient or out-patient services at a hospital. These are more common in hospitals at large cities, but they can be found anywhere. You can also work in jail treatment programs, which may be structured similarly to residential programs but are likely to feel very different if the inmates are required to attend. You might also find yourself working with maternal-child health programs that serve a specific community or even senior services that aim to maintain the health of a community’s older population.