Q&A: Licensure and Certification

If you’re unfamiliar with the licensure and certification process, the state-by-state requirements will make your head spin. Meaning you might have a handful of very legitimate questions. The Grad School’s President and CEO took the opportunity to answer as many as he could.
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Credentialing helps to identify a minimum standard for competency as defined by the jurisdiction, which is usually the state

Q&A with Dr. Kevin Doyle, EdD, President and CEO, Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School: Making Sense of the Licensing and Certification Process for Addiction Counselors

The requirements to become a licensed addiction counselor vary from state to state, and it's pretty tricky to figure out how to obtain your counseling certification or licensure. To make sure you're getting the skills and clinical training you need, start thinking about licensure and certification requirements as soon as possible.

We asked Dr. Kevin Doyle to answer the most common questions related to the licensure and certification process.

In the question-and-answer session that follows, Dr. Doyle shares his expertise in the field of licensure and certification for addiction counseling, and what students should know before finishing their education in substance abuse counseling.

When it comes to addiction counseling, the terms "licensure" and "certification" get used interchangeably, and it often causes confusion. What's the difference?

Agreed! The "alphabet soup" of licensing terms and requirements is really confusing. We created a full-time position here at the Graduate School just to help students with their clinical placements and licensure requirements.

To answer your question: addiction counselors can be licensed, certified or both. States usually issue licenses through their licensure boards. Licenses usually allow counselors to have private practices and to bill third parties for their counseling or mental health services. Some states have separate licenses for alcohol and drug counseling, while others only have general mental health or clinical counseling licenses.

Certifications are usually voluntary. Some states issue their own certifications, while others recognize certifications that are issued by independent bodies or entities.

The best advice I can give to future counselors is this: become familiar with the state requirements where you plan to practice, and consult our staff for any licensing questions.

Should future counselors be made aware of any specific licensing bodies or certification organizations?

The most established are the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC), the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC-AP). Visit their websites to learn which licenses or certifications are offered, the requirements for each and which exams to take.

When it comes to drug and alcohol counseling, it sounds like there's no single set of rules to follow to get licensed or certified. Does it really depend on the state in which you practice?

Yes, it really does. And that includes territories like Puerto Rico, Guam and the federal District of Columbia. Each territory and state regulates the practice of different health professions, like addiction counseling, within their borders. Each may require different levels of education, different exams to be taken and so on.

States are slowly getting better at recognizing credentials issued by other states. But states always have the right to determine their own requirements, which can be frustrating for people who relocate or travel for their job. A person has to learn about the state requirements if they want to become a licensed professional counselor.

A certification obviously looks good on the resume. Is that the only reason why someone would get certified if they're becoming a counselor for drug and alcohol addiction?

Well, let's not understate how great it looks. A holder of a respected, established certification will certainly rise in the eyes of a potential employer. It makes it pretty clear that a person has taken the time to establish competency in addiction counseling. They've received training, passed exams and had supervised experiences, not to mention that each issuing body (IC&RC, NBCC, NCC-AP) advocates for its credential to be accepted for various privileges.

So why all the different rules and requirements? Why do students and professional counselors have to navigate this process to obtain licensure or certification? If they have the proper education, why can't counselors just practice?

Probably the most important reason is for public protection. To protect the people with substance use or mental health disorders, there have to be some requirements to obtain a license or certificate in counseling. Without licensure or certification, people in need of mental health services, like drug and alcohol treatment, would have no way of knowing that a practitioner is qualified, ethical and safe.

Licensure and certification regulations contain codes of ethics and standards of practice that must be followed. Anyone who violates these provisions will be subject to disciplinary action, including the revocation of the right to practice in that jurisdiction. If a counselor were fired from their job for inappropriate behavior, they can't just move to a new state or agency.

Are there any attempts to universalize the counseling requirements? To make consistent standards across each state that would allow licensed professional counselors to practice anywhere?

Yes, but it's frustratingly slow at times. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of these efforts because many providers have been forced to adopt virtual counseling. This made it easier to see patients from other states, and to continue seeing patients when they travel or move. But state licensing boards are still trying to figure out how to balance these efforts with patient safety.

As the current president of the American Association of State Counseling Boards, I am fortunate to be involved in the discussions around these issues. I have met many dedicated and knowledgeable professionals who serve on licensing boards around the country. I hope this role will be of additional benefit to our students and am always available to help.

How do Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School students fare in terms of meeting their licensure or certification requirements, both in and out of state? Is their education catered to a variety of licensing requirements?

Counseling students at Hazelden Betty Ford are generally doing very well. The Graduate School continues to monitor the education and experience requirements around the country. We try to give our students the education they need to become professional counselors in as many states as possible. For obvious reasons, though, we do match the education to the licensing requirements in states with Hazelden Betty Ford locations.

Again, to make sure they're on the right path to becoming a drug and alcohol counselor, students should educate themselves about specific state requirements. Florida, for example, requires students to complete a course in human sexuality. We offer this course as an elective, but it's not a part of the core curricula. If a student knows what education they need to attain before they graduate, they will likely be able to meet those requirements here at the Graduate School.

What advice can you offer to students who are pursuing a degree in addiction counseling or thinking about a career in counseling?

I would encourage students to think about their goals. Some counselors have the passion to pursue every available addiction counseling license or certification. Other counselors might want to work more broadly with mental health and addiction. They should review the requirements to obtain a clinical mental health counseling license. All would do well to look at the state requirements where they are interested in working.

And again, about half the states have licenses specific to addiction counseling, while others only have broader mental health counseling licensure.

We always advise students and graduates to maintain their academic and course records, including their clinical logs and syllabi from all counseling coursework. These documents are helpful records of your clinical hours, and they might be needed to meet state requirements. Keeping good records of clinical training can save time and frustration in the long term.

Take the First Step Toward Your Career: Earn Your Master's Degree in Addiction Counseling at Hazelden Betty Ford

Surveys find that more than 99.6% of Hazelden Betty Ford graduates taking the licensing/certification examination within six months of graduation passed the first time,* and 92.4% found employment within six months of graduation.**

Earn your master's degree in addiction counseling at the nation's leading nonprofit addiction treatment center. Find out more today.

Learn more about the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School.

View the Master's in Addiction Counseling Hybrid Program.

View the Master's in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling Online Program.

* From 2004-2022, based on 453/455 survey respondents
**From 2002-2022, based on 521/564 survey respondents

Find more information about the field of addiction counseling

  • Substance abuse counseling is one of the fastest growing fields in the nation. Take a closer look at the different types of careers in addiction counseling, where counselors are employed, and more. Career Paths for Drug and Alcohol Counselors.
  • Becoming an addiction counselor requires specialized skills and experience. Let us take you step by step through the process of becoming an addiction counselor—from earning your degree to getting licensed or certified in your state. How to Become an Addiction Counselor.
  • Thinking about a counseling career? Earning a master's degree will open doors to more job opportunities, provide real-world clinical experience, and boost your earning potential. Find out more. Why Earn Your Master's in Addiction Counseling?