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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

how to become a substance abuse counselor

Can you believe there have been 700,000 overdoses recorded in the USA since 2000?

That’s around the same as the population of Alaska.

Addiction is a huge problem worldwide. However, America lands in the top 5 alongside Russia and Afghanistan for countries with significant abuse problems. Unfortunately, it’s hard to escape the headlines, with opioid abuse becoming a major crisis throughout the USA.

So, let’s take a look at How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor and get you helping those in need who can’t help themselves…

how to become a substance abuse counselor

A Brief History

Believe it or not, substance abuse counselors date way back to the 1700s. Native American tribes began abstinence-based practices to treat alcoholism. Since then, battling substance abuse has continued to be a reality for many families, businesses, and doctors worldwide.

Treatments included hydrotherapy, induced comas, draining blisters, reinjecting the fluid, and using LSD for alcoholism. Drug treatments and therapy have come a long way since the 1700s. However, the country’s attitude to drugs and alcohol hasn’t.

Therefore, substance abuse counselors are always needed to help people through their addictions to overcome them to lead a normal life.

Read more: How To Become a Counselor?

What Is A Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor is trained in mental health and can help individuals combat their addictions. The primary role is to work with people and families to treat their mental and emotional disorders to fit into society and lead a normal life.

They want to bring people out of a dark place and promote a better lifestyle along with helping their mental health issues. Depending on the role of the counselor, they could be working 1-1 or in group counseling meetings. It also depends on the treatment they provide.

Empathy is essential…

A substance abuse role can vary from helping people suffering a deep depression due to their addictions to people who are suicidal and individuals struggling with grief. The job role varies greatly, but one thing that stays the same is a counselor must be empathetic and personable.

Substance Abuse counselors must be prepared to work unsociable hours and work with a vast demographic. There are roles in state, local, and private hospitals. Prisons, detention centers, juvenile facilities, detox centers, and probation agencies are familiar places for counselors. They must listen to their clients and point them in the right direction for support and helpful community resources.

They also educate…

Some substance abuse counselors hold community workshops and seminars in schools, colleges, and the public about substance abuse prevention. They educate people about illegal and legal drugs and how a life of drugs is not the way to go.

how to become substance abuse counselor

Salary And Growth

Becoming a substance abuse counselor can provide a successful and satisfying career. Not only do you make decent money, but you can also help many people turn their lives around and support families. This provides high job satisfaction, and this contributes to a rewarding career.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020, the average salary for a substance abuse counselor is $46,660 per year. However, this can vary widely depending on location, specialization, and experience. Around 25% of counselors on a higher payscale averaged $61,760 per year.

What is the earning potential?

Like most jobs, the more experience you have, the more you can look to get paid! Of course, that comes with more responsibilities, though. Therefore to progress and reach the higher end of the pay scale, you must invest your time in your studies and gain experience. For example, a Bachelor’s degree will suffice for the role.

However, earning a Master’s degree in a specialization could push you to a higher level. A master’s degree may also open the door to working in private and higher-scale facilities. You may decide to go independently and have a large client base with friends in the profession who recommend you. This is another excellent earning potential for setting your rates and creating community groups.

The Steps

Many people land themselves on this career path due to previous addiction and the wish to help others overcome what they did. It may be that they were severely affected by substance abuse in their family growing up. Or, you have a deep interest in helping others and want change in the world. Whatever the reason becoming a counselor is pretty straightforward. Let’s take a look…

Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

First of all, find a university with a course required for a counselor role. This could be in psychology, counseling, or social work. Choose a course that suits you. If you are busy and looking for a career change, you can also find online universities which offer courses.

While studying for your Bachelor’s, you should try to gain some work experience at the same time. This is great to open your eyes to the world of counseling and gives you an insight into what your career could look like.

how to become the substance abuse counselor

Step 2: Earn a Master’s (Optional)

Most job roles will accept applicants who have only a Bachelor’s degree. This means gaining a master’s isn’t essential. However, it is useful, and it will only open up more options for you in the future. Perhaps you can return to do a Masters’s after you have gained experience in the field. This will also allow you to specialize in something you enjoy after gaining work experience.

Step 3: Internships and Experience

Most states require supervised work to gain a counselor license. Internships are great opportunities for students to understand the field and use what they have learned in real-life events.

Internships are also fantastic opportunities to network with other professionals and gain first-hand tips on the job. They can take place somewhere of your choice; you will usually be placed in the same state if you study online.

Step 4: Specialization

Most universities will encourage students to think about specialization or routes to go down. For example, some substance abuse counselors may focus on addiction recovery. A specialization requires 12-21 credits and may also require you to attend additional practice sessions in a facility or hospital.

Step 5: Get Your Credentials

Now the exciting part. Once you have completed your studies and internships, it is time for you to get your license. Make sure to check your state’s exact requirements as they can vary throughout. Individuals can also earn other certifications to prove their knowledge.

This could be in specific things such as drug and alcohol counseling. Most states will require 415 hours of substance abuse counseling to work in the field for an entry-level employment role. Along with your academic practice and work experience, most states will also require you to sit a final exam.

Step 6: Become a Doctor (Optional)

After the experience, you can obtain a doctorate if you want to progress. This is especially helpful if you plan to open your private practice. This degree usually takes around four to six years to achieve and is usually completed while working full-time.

Students must analyze different theories and write an advanced dissertation of their findings. This is not necessary for everyone who wants a career as a counselor, but it is essential for those who want to reach the top end of the career scale.

Preparing To Become A Counselor

First of all, think about what you want to get out of the program. You may already have an idea of what you would like to specialize in; that’s great! However, if you don’t, please don’t worry! There are generic courses where you can dip your toes in several parts of substance abuse counseling before choosing a specific specialization.

Another factor is affordability. Many of the high tuition schools offer help to students if they meet the requirements. Third-party scholarships and federal grants are also something prospective students should be looking into.

Flexibility while studying…

Perhaps flexibility is most important to you. You may want to find a course where most of the study is from home to fit your busy life. This is an excellent option, and you can still access all the materials other students receive, such as pre-recorded lectures.

Finally, looking at what courses align with your career goals is super important. You want to choose the right course that will get you where you aspire to be in the future. Check out the U.S Department of Education’s official website to check the schools you are interested in. Here will give you a rough idea of where they stand regarding accreditation.

Who Hires Substance Abuse Counselors?

Many institutions are looking to hire substance abuse counselors to fit their teams. Most jobs advertised are for full-time roles, and there are some options for remote work. However, this role involves working closely with people and the community, so your job will likely be in the field. Counselors must prepare to be flexible as they can be called upon both day or night during a crisis.

Here are some of the institutions that hire counselors:

  • Hospitals
  • Jails and Prisons
  • Social Welfare Agencies
  • Juvenile Detention Centers
  • Hospital
  • Rehabilitation Facilities
  • High Schools
  • Colleges
  • Homeless Shelters
  • Social Welfare Agencies
  • Domestic Violence Shelters
  • Halfway Houses

how to become the substance abuse counselors

Key Qualities

A job like this comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure. It is demanding, and you will probably feel emotionally involved in your cases.

It’s not unusual for counselors to invest more time into their clients and really wish the best for them. There will be people you connect with and want to help like anything in life. A counselor must have many qualities to be successful at their job and stand out amongst a group of people.


You must show your genuine concern and care for all of your clients. You must understand them and apply your skills and advice to what suits them best. There is no room for judgment as a counselor, and you will witness things that you’ve probably never seen in your life.


It would be best if you tried to put yourself in your client’s shoes. See the world from their point of view. Look at why they have gotten to the stage they are in life and consider if it affects you in any way; think about how they must feel.

Active Listening

When a client first meets you, it’s important to understand that they probably won’t break down all the walls and barriers. They won’t open up to you straight away, so you must read between the lines. Take in all the information they are offering and look at the wider picture of their lives. Listening skills are essential. People in struggling conditions need to feel like someone is listening to them.


You will likely deal with clients who relapse several times. Unfortunately, between 40% and 60% of people will relapse after the first time trying to become clean. This means you may have a recurring client. You have to be patient. Understand that each person’s journey towards positive change is different and will often happen in their own time.


It’s essential to build genuine and authentic relationships with your clients. You want them to trust and believe in you. If you are honest with your clients, they will likely have a deeper respect for you.


Being open-minded is key to being a counselor. People will share life details with you that perhaps no one else knows. This could be really traumatic and difficult for them, so you must keep an open mind.


Finally, you must keep all information confidential. That means no discussing clients’ cases with friends or family, no matter how shocking they are to you.

If you are struggling with a case, confide in another health professional who can guide you in the right direction. You are dealing with people in very vulnerable states. Therefore, you must be sensitive towards them and keep the information you have gathered confidential.

Excellent Guides For Your Exams!

So, you’ve got those dreaded exams coming up and need some help?

No problem, we recommend using the Substance Abuse Counselor Exam Success: Master the key vocabulary of the Substance Abuse Counselor Course and Exams, the Alcohol and Drug Counselor Exam Secrets Study Guide: ADC Test Review for the International Examination for Alcohol and Drug Counselors, and the CASAC Exam Study Guide – Test Prep Book with Practice Questions for the Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor Examination to start your prepping!

In addition, we found the Alcohol and Drug Counselor Exam Practice Questions: Adc Practice Tests & Review for the International Examination for Alcohol & Drug Counselors, the Alcohol & Drug Counselor Exam: Addiction Counseling Certification, and the Addiction Counselor Exam Flashcard Study System all available online in 2023.

Of course, if you’d like to know more about what counseling positions entail, take a look at my Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description, my Counselor Job Description, or how about my Camp Counselor Job Description, or even try my Guidance Counselor Interview Questions for further insight.

Final Thoughts

A career in substance abuse counseling is not for the faint-hearted. It is a demanding, stressful role where you will meet some of the most vulnerable and troubled individuals.

However, it is a rewarding career, and you can make a good living. Keep in mind when applying to study as a counselor, the options you have for specialization and extra studying can give you a step ahead of the others in gaining higher respected roles.

Finally, make sure your characteristics fit the role of a counselor, and you will succeed.

All the very best working as a Substance Abuse Counselor!

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