Addiction counselors provide expert care, guidance and support to help people reclaim their lives from dependence on alcohol or other drugs. As evidenced by the nation’s surging opioid epidemic, addiction is one of the nation’s leading health problems and the need for well-trained counselors is greater than ever. While certification and licensing requirements differ from state to state, substance use disorder counseling has become an increasingly evidence-based and specialized area of practice within behavioral health care. This Q&A provides you with helpful information about: The definition and prevalence of addiction Key aspects of addiction/substance use disorder counseling Education and training requirements to work as an addiction counselor The increasing need for substance use and behavioral disorder counselors What is Addiction? The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines alcohol and drug addiction, also known as “substance use disorder,” as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Like diabetes, hypertension or other chronic diseases, substance use disorder can involve cycles of relapse and remission. While there isn’t an absolute “cure” for addiction, there are scientifically valid interventions and therapies that can help people successfully manage the disease and improve their occupational, social and psychological functioning. How Prevalent Are Substance Use Disorders? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, substance use disorders strike one in 10 Americans over the age of 12. That’s more than 20 million Americans. Addiction to alcohol or other drugs is often referred to as “an equal opportunity disease” because it affects people regardless of race, gender, age or socioeconomic status. How Does Addiction Counseling Help People Overcome Dependence on Alcohol or Other Drugs? Effective counselors are instrumental in helping people turn their lives around. Through therapeutic care, education, coaching and recovery support, counselors help clients change their attitudes and behaviors and adopt new life practices and coping skills—so they're no longer dependent on alcohol or other drugs. Over the course of a career, a single counselor can contribute to the recovery of thousands of people. What Knowledge and Skills are Important for Addiction Counselors to Master? A publication produced by the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Center for Substance Abuse Treatment identifies 123 competencies considered to be essential for effective counselors. This publication, Addiction Counseling Competencies: The Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes of Professional Practice - Tap 21 Technical Assistance Publication Series, discusses key areas of proficiency in the counseling profession, including: Patient assessment and screening Treatment planning Patient referral Coordination of client care and services Individual client and group counseling Family education Cultural competency What Might a Typical Day Look Like For an Addiction Counselor? Daily activities for a counselor working in an inpatient or outpatient treatment setting might include: Providing one-to-one client counseling Facilitating group therapy Collaborating with other professionals to address co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety Communicating with referents Conferring with family members Managing unforeseen challenges and crises Caseload documentation; charting counseling progress What Level of Education is Needed to Become a Licensed or Certified Addiction Counselor? The educational requirements to practice as an alcohol and drug counselor vary significantly from state to state. In general, the addiction counseling field is moving toward requiring a master’s degree—already a requirement in a few states—along with a specific number of credits or credit hours in substance abuse studies and counseling course work. An internship, practicum hours or other clinical supervision is typically required as well, along with a passing score on the state’s credentialing exam. That said, several states require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree at minimum, while a few states require only a high school diploma or associate’s degree in combination with a certain number of hours of supervised training and completion of a credentialing examination. Several states have a tiered credentialing process. Looking to the future, master’s level training will become increasingly important as treatment for addiction incorporates integrated care for co-occurring disorders. How Can I Learn More About State-specific Credentialing or Licensure Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors? Credentialing agencies in each state provide details about the level of education, requisite course work, practicum hours, and exams required. Locate counselor credentialing agencies by state. National accrediting agencies such as the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) provide helpful information as well. Another way to learn what it takes to become a substance abuse counselor is to interview a clinician who works in a community or organization of interest to you. Ask about his/her educational background, clinical experience, professional training and certification as well as the licensure or credentialing process and any recommendations regarding the most beneficial academic and clinical preparation for a career as a counselor. How Long Does it Take to Become a Certified Addiction Counselor? Again, this depends largely on the level of education and licensure or certification requirements for the state where you intend to practice. Keep in mind that if you wish to practice in multiple states, you will need to possess the necessary credentials to practice in each of those states. Other variables that can impact the length of time to complete addiction counselor training include: Whether you enroll as a full-time or part-time student Whether you can complete all or part of your program online Whether you can transfer previously earned credits or work experience toward your counseling degree program Whether you plan to work and attend school at the same time Whether it’s possible to complete courses at an accelerated pace What Should I Look For in Choosing an Addiction Counseling Degree Program, Certificate Program or Other Educational Path to Becoming a Substance Use Disorder Counselor? You’ll want to create your own checklist of criteria based on your life situation, career goals, work environment preferences, salary requirements and other considerations, but here are some general questions to ask: Does the program help students find clinical placements or employment? Is the program offered online or on campus? What types of degree programs are offered? Does work experience or on-the-job training count toward credit hours? How long does the program typically take to complete? What percentage of graduates pass licensing/credentialing exams? What percentage of graduates find addiction counselor jobs? Does the curriculum meet credentialing requirements in the state where you intend to practice? Do faculty members have addiction counseling experience? What are the specialty areas and degree levels of faculty members? Is financial aid available? Is the program accredited? What level of contact do students have with faculty in an advisory capacity? What do employers say about the quality of the program? Where Could I Work as an Addiction Counselor? Many substance abuse counselors choose to work at inpatient or outpatient drug treatment centers. In addition, there are a wide variety of employment options across the entire addiction prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery continuum of services, including: K-12 schools College and university systems Mental health centers Hospitals and health care systems Insurance and managed care organizations Probation and parole agencies Employee assistance programs Private practice (e.g., therapist) Human services (e.g., social services worker) What is the Job Outlook for Substance Abuse Counselors? In a word, strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a job growth rate of 22 percent for substance abuse and behavioral health counselors by 2024, significantly outpacing the average growth projected for other occupations. The growing need for addiction counselors is due in part to increased insurance coverage of mental and behavioral health care services, which has opened access to substance abuse counseling and treatment for millions of Americans in need. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that only 11 percent of Americans in need of treatment receive it. With greater awareness and recognition of addiction as a medical condition, the percentage of Americans accessing treatment is expected to grow. What Annual Salary Can I Expect to Earn as an Addiction Counselor? According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in 2016 was $41,070. In general, the entry level salary for counselors with a bachelor’s degree starts at $40,000, and the entry level salary for counselors with a master’s degree starts at $50,000. What Are the Benefits of a Career in Addiction Counseling? Counselors who work in the field attest to the tremendous sense of purpose and satisfaction that come from helping people get their lives back from addiction. Substance use disorder counselors work with individuals whose lives have become unmanageable due to alcohol and drug dependency. Counselors make a real difference in people’s lives by providing the expert guidance, care and support they need to improve their physical health, emotional wellbeing, psychological functioning and relationships—and reclaim their hopes and dreams. Are You Ready to Start Your Career in Addiction Counseling? Learn more about the addiction counseling degree programs available through the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies and apply today.