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What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor (also known as an addiction counselor) is a licensed professional who focuses on helping those who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse issues. They may work one-on-one with clients, in group settings, or both in order to help their clients overcome their addiction.

Although many work in the field while earning their degree, to earn the title of substance abuse counselor one must be highly trained and meet their state's requirements for both experience and education.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Addiction Counselor

Once you decide the role of substance abuse counselor is your ideal career you'll need a working plan in order to reach your goal. While there are various paths you might take to earn this title, it is vital you have a clear idea of what you need to do and learn in order to qualify for the role. Here are the most accepted steps you'll need to follow in order to become a substance abuse counselor:

  • Step 1: Check your state requirements for licensure

  • Step 2: Earn your degree

  • Step 3: Complete the minimum number of hours of counseling work experience required

  • Step 4: Complete your state application process

  • Step 5: Pass your state counseling exam

  • Step 6: Maintain your license by meeting state continuing education requirements


Step 1: Check your state requirements for licensure

Each state sets their own requirements and processes for counseling licensure, and where you live will determine exactly what department is in charge of licensing and what you need to qualify for state licensure. For example, in New York your credential will be overseen by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) and you'll need a minimum of 350 hours of education specific to substance and alcohol abuse and up to 6,000 hours of experience before qualifying to sit for the exam. In Hawaii, licensure is overseen by the Hawaii Department of Health - Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division; you must complete 300 hours of substance abuse specific education and 6000 hours of experience before applying to sit for the exam. Make sure you understand what school accreditation is accepted by the state before you enroll in your preferred program.

Step 2: Earn your degree

Once you have a clear understanding of state licensure, you should carefully match the state education requirements to the programs offered by your school of choice. Verify that the program meets the accreditation standards and see if there is an internship program that might be applied towards your supervised experience requirements. Although many states have no degree requirement, you should plan on initially earning a counseling bachelor's degree with a long-term plan of earning your master's degree or doctorate. This will ensure you have the optimum education for employment prospects.

Step 3: Complete the minimum number of hours of supervised counseling work experience required

The experience required may vary depending on your education. For example, in New York the experience requirement is 6,000 hours, but you will receive 2,000 hours of credit with a bachelor's degree and 4,000 hours credit with a master's degree. Make sure your experience is verified according to state standards, as this is typically part of the application process.

Step 4: Complete your state application process

You will apply for licensure through your state board; this is where you will submit your school transcripts and experience documentation. A standard fee will be due when the application is submitted. Many states require a mandatory background check as part of the application process. Once your application has been accepted and approved you will receive instructions to sit for the state exam.

Step 5: Pass your state counseling exam

Most states use the testing process of the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium/Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (IC&RC/AODA), which is the industry standard. Most states offer several licensing credentials, so you may first take the substance abuse counselor exam, work in the field, and take higher exams as your education and experience allows.

Step 6: Maintain your license by meeting state continuing education requirements

Most states require you to renew your credential every two years, and during those two years you must complete specific continuing education requirements. A typical requirement is 40 hours of continuing education in the field of substance abuse, with six of those hours being specific to ethics in the field of counseling. This two-year renewal period is also an ideal time to apply for and earn the next higher credential in your field.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

A substance abuse counselor typically works in an office setting; those providing group sessions usually do so in a conference room or larger area. The majority of the day is spent in one-on-one counseling with clients, where they might take a client history, manage crises as they arise, and help the client set goals and examine behavioral changes.

A counselor might also confer with client partners and other family members as part of the counseling process. Between clients they must maintain records and may collaborate with other professionals for insight and advice. Mental health counselors must chart progress, develop treatment plans, and refer clients to other resources as needed. They typically meet with their supervisor on a regular basis to provide progress reports and explore treatment options.

Some substance abuse counselors conduct outreach programs to promote recovery from addiction; they may work in conjunction with recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous in order to provide recovery resources.

Skills to Acquire

Substance abuse counselors need a wide range of skills in order to perform their job effectively. Here are some of the most important:

  • Compassion: substance abuse counselors must have empathy with their clients and show compassion for their addiction struggles.
  • Patience: must be able to remain calm and patient when faced with anger issues, lack of progress, and repetitive complaints and symptoms.
  • Listening skills: mental health counselors must be able to listen attentively to understand underlying issues, as well as a client's values and problems.
  • Speaking skills: must be able to speak clearly on a level corresponding to each client's comprehension level and to also speak to peers on a professional level.
  • Interpersonal skills: substance abuse counselors work with a wide range of people from all walks of life and must be accepting and congenial despite personal reservations.
  • Writing skills: mental health counselors must be able to transcribe notes, questions, and diagnoses on charts and reports.
  • Computer skills: able to use basic programs used in the field, as well as able to research topics pertaining to a client's case.
  • Organizational skills: must be highly organized in order to maintain proper records as well as manage their time effectively.
  • Bilingual skills: knowing a second or third language is highly desirable to provide service to a wider range of clientele.

Alternative Paths

There are several alternative paths to becoming a substance abuse counselor. The main requirement is to meet the criteria of your state's licensing board in order to take and pass the licensing exam. For example, you might hold a degree and years of experience in another type of counseling, in which case you might only need to complete the college courses on substance abuse as set forth by your state regulating board.

Technically, one can become a substance abuse counselor with an associate's degree in counseling and enough supervised experience in the field. As noted previously, someone with an associate's degree would typically need to accrue 6,000 hours of experience (the equivalent of three years full-time work) as opposed to the 2,000 required by someone with a master's degree. Some states allow the same path for those who only have a high school diploma.

Many states allow you to work within the field under the supervision of a clinical substance abuse counselor. You should refer to your state licensing board to determine exactly what is required and allowed in your state.

Keep in mind, your salary will usually correlate directly with your level of education. So, even if you're already employed within the field of substance abuse counseling, you should still strive to earn your degree as soon as possible.

Substance Abuse Counselor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Substance abuse counselors work in a wide range of settings and industries. Roughly 20% are employed at outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers; another 17% work at Individual and family services centers. A full 11% are employed at residential substance abuse and mental health facilities and another 11% are employed by state, local, and private hospitals. The government employs 9%.

Many substance abuse counselors work at probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities and prisons, as well as detox centers, halfway houses, or in employee assistance programs. Some work with other mental health counselors as part of a group practice and some have their own private practice. Schools of all levels employ substance abuse counselors as do many public health programs. Insurance and managed care organizations also hire substance abuse counselors.

As the baby boomer generation ages there will be a rise in substance abuse treatment in retirement community areas; likewise, active and retired military treatment centers will see an increase in mental health treatment needs.

Potential Career Paths

There are many careers within the field of substance abuse counseling and you may find yourself drawn to a specific area of study as you pursue your degree. Keep in mind, the same position may have a different title in regard to your state licensing board. You should always look at the educational requirements for licensing before you pursue a certain line of study. Here are some potential career paths within the field of substance abuse counseling:

Alcoholism Counselor:
These professionals focus solely on addiction to alcohol with specific training and clinical experience on the physical and mental healing needed to overcome an addiction to alcohol. May work with individuals, families, or adult children of alcoholics.

Chemical Dependence Counselor:
These mental health counselors are similar to alcohol counselors but with a focus on chemical dependencies such as an addiction to opiates and other prescription drugs.

Corrections Counselor:
Their work is focused on those within a correctional facility or recently released convicts as they move through the parole system.

Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist:
As the title suggests, these professionals work to educate as a means of prevention in regard to substance abuse and addiction. They are typically employed in a school setting or public arena, such as a community action program for high risk groups.

Keep in mind, substance abuse is a specialized area within the field of counseling; those who experience burnout or similar stress working strictly with substance abuse clients can easily segue into another area of counseling.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Psychologist $66,000 $82,000 $91,000
School Psychologist $55,000 $64,000 $78,000
Clinical Psychologist $70,000 $82,000 $100,000
Neuropsychologist $73,000 $94,000 $126,000
Clinical Therapist $62,000 $49,000 $65,000
Forensic Psychologist $51,000 $79,000 $94,000
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist $51,000 $78,000 $132,000
Clinical Services Director $62,000 $89,000 $133,000
Behavioral Health Director $58,000 $85,000 $135,000
Mental Health Counselor $33,000 $43,000 $61,000
Licensed Professional Counselor $41,000 $50,000 $59,000
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist $49,000 $58,000 $65,000
Substance Abuse Counselor $31,000 $40,000 $53,000
Psychometrist $31,000 $47,000 $63,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The career outlook for substance abuse counselors is excellent with a projected growth of 23% in the next decade. The growth within the field is due to a number of reasons: the current opiate addiction epidemic and a change on the state level which values treatment over incarceration within the penal system. In addition, there has been a change in public perception of mental health care, as seeking treatment is no longer seen as a stigma.

Although the field of substance abuse counseling is competitive in general, your job prospects are excellent because the need for mental health counselors is so high. Counseling as a whole does not pay extremely well; as with most career fields you can expect your income potential to grow as you acquire more experience and education. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states the 2017 annual median wage for substance abuse counselors was $43,300. The lowest 10%, typically representing those with the least education and experience, earned $27,300. The highest 10%, representing those with the highest education and most experience, earned an annual median wage of $70,800.

Where you work will also influence your income. For example, substance abuse counselors in Philadelphia earn approximately 18% more than the national median wage, while those working in Houston earn approximately 14% less.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

There are many options for advancement within the field of substance abuse counseling, which is one of the key reasons you should plan to earn at least a Master's Degree. In addition to your graduate degree, you should plan to pursue one or more credentials from the IC&RC to showcase your expertise within that aspect of the field. The IC&RC currently offers six certifications, each with its own requirements:

  • Alcohol & Drug Counselor (ADC)
  • Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor (AADC)
  • Certified Criminal Justice Addictions Professional (CCJP)
  • Clinical Supervisor (CS)
  • Peer Recovery (PR)
  • Prevention Specialist (PS)

The combination of education, experience, and credentials can open up advanced positions within the field such as:

  • Substance Abuse Counselor Supervisor: Oversee new mental health counselors as they gain the experience required for state licensure.
  • Substance Abuse Director: Oversee all employees within a facility or clinic; assure all policies and procedures are in compliance and all employees meet state requirements for licensure and certification.
  • Substance Abuse Facility Administrator: Take charge of all personnel within a facility as well as ensure all paperwork, casework, and client charts meet state standard requirements.

With an advanced degree substance abuse counselors can also move into a related field such as education, research, or consulting.

What is the difference between a substance abuse counselor and a mental health counselor?

A substance abuse counselor is specifically trained to work with addictions and help clients through the steps to recovery. Mental health counselors can help provide treatment and counseling services for substance abuse but it is not their specialty.

What does a substance abuse counselor do?

A substance abuse counselor uses mental health counseling services to help treat alcohol abuse and drug abuse. Drug and alcohol counselors provide mental health counseling to people with substance abuse by creating goals and treatment plans.

How much does a licensed substance abuse counselor make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substance abuse counselor jobs pay around $48,000 annually.

What is a substance abuse behavioral disorder?

Someone who suffers from a substance abuse behavioral disorder generally struggle with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, or mental health. Substance abuse behavioral disorder counselors provide treatment and counseling services for people suffering with a substance abuse behavioral disorder.

Where do addiction counselors work?

Addiction counselors work in private practice, prisons, community health centers, and mental health centers.

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