How to Become an Addiction Counselor

With requirements varying by state, the road to licensure can get a little muddied. Here we explain how to proceed, giving you step-by-step instructions that help expedite and streamline the process.
counselor speaking
The demand for qualified addiction counselors continues to grow.

Addiction continues to be one of the nation's leading health problems. And as mental and behavioral health awareness continues to grow, along with access to treatment, so does the demand for qualified substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors.

Addiction counselors are mental health professionals who help people manage drug addiction and co-occurring disorders. This article explains how to become a licensed substance abuse counselor. 

Here we'll take you step by step through becoming a substance abuse counselor—from earning your addiction counseling degree to getting licensed or certified in your state.

Steps to Become a Drug and Alcohol Counselor

Counseling as a career is ideal for someone interested in working with individuals and groups to improve mental, behavioral, and emotional concerns. Professionals passionate about working with complex patients who struggle with impulse control, substance use, emotion regulation, and goal achievement may be interested in schooling for drug and alcohol counseling. 

If you're ready to pursue addiction counseling as a career, it's time to start making a plan. Next, we'll walk through the steps of how to become a counselor, including how to fulfill and obtain the right education requirements, clinical experience, and other credentials you'll need for certification or licensure as a substance abuse counselor.

Step 1: Review Counseling Licensure or Certification Requirements for Your State

While requirements vary by state, Hazelden Betty Ford's certified addiction counselor training programs are some of the most widely respected in the country. Requirements may include degree type, curriculum, number of credits, accreditation, clinical experience, internships, and exams. That's why it's important to start planning now.

Being familiar with substance abuse counselor requirements by state can help eliminate licensing issues later. Certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC) certification must be maintained throughout your career. You can contact your state licensure or certification board directly with any questions. You might also want to talk with a substance abuse counselor in your community.

Courses and internship experiences offered at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School are designed for substance use and mental health licensure.

Step 2: Earn a Master of Arts in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling

Again, requirements to become a drug counselor will vary depending on the location of the practice. You'll typically need a minimum of a bachelor's degree to practice counseling. As the prevalence of substance use disorder increases, many addiction counselors pursue an additional license as a mental health counselor. This helps them provide the expert help their clients need. 

Several states have started recognizing the need for master's-degree-level addiction counseling licensure and certification. But there are other reasons a graduate program is your best option if you're looking for a long-term career in the substance use disorder (SUD) counseling field. You will gain valuable real-world experience working with highly qualified counselors. Most important, you will have the necessary skills to help more people.

Earning a Master of Arts in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School expands career opportunities in behavioral health counseling. It also boosts your earning potential.

Find the best-fit master's degree in addiction counseling.

It's good to have options. You might be an undergraduate student thinking about a career in counseling. You might be a professional adult looking to change careers. There are many different master's degrees and counseling programs to fit your goals. Think carefully about which best fits your needs.

Our accredited Master of Arts in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling degrees are available in hybrid and online programs. Think about your availability. Think about your learning preferences. This will help you choose the right option. Learn more about the benefits of online vs. hybrid master's degrees in counseling programs. For some people, face-to-face learning and discussion work best. If this is the case for you, the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School offers a hybrid Master of Arts in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling, combining online and in-person experiences.

Step 3: Complete Exams and Supervised Field Experiences

To become licensed or certified as an alcohol and drug counselor, you will likely need to pass an exam. Examples include the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium's (IC&RC) Alcohol and Drug Counselor Examination and Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor Examination. You may need to pass an exam through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP).

Some states require you to pass similar examinations for mental health licensure. Examples include the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). You may need to pass an additional counseling program or organization exam. 

Depending on your state and the type of licensure you plan to pursue, you might also need to complete supervised, post-graduate professional practice as part of your substance abuse counseling training. Learn more about counseling as a career.

Step 4: Apply for Licensure or Certification in Your State

In order to practice substance abuse counseling, you must be licensed or certified by your state board. Since every state is unique, check your state regulatory board for how to apply. Practicing in more than one state or a telehealth setting is possible. However, depending on where your clients live, you may need to maintain credentials in multiple states. Remote learning makes becoming a certified substance abuse counselor possible without entering a college classroom. Earning an addiction counseling degree online is ideal for students with substantial work or family requirements.

Step 5: Continue Your Education

Addiction counseling is a professional field that promotes lifelong education and personal growth—not only for patients but also for practitioners. The training and best practices for SUD counselors are continually evolving, so you'll want to keep professional development for counselors opportunities on your radar. Continuing education is essential to maintain your addiction counselor certification and stay current with any developments in the addiction field.

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

The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School offers master's programs in addiction counseling both on-campus and online. As an accredited institution of higher learning, our integrated addiction counseling programs include coursework in mental health and co-occurring disorders.

At Hazelden Betty Ford, you'll have the opportunity to learn from top counseling experts at the nation's leading nonprofit addiction treatment center. You can also take classes full or part time. When you graduate, you'll have the training and real-world clinical experience you need to succeed in your field.

The Hazelden Betty Ford name carries credibility. Take the leap and apply. It's a journey and an opportunity that's worth every penny.

Tracey Baker
Master's of Arts in Addiction Counseling: Integrated Recovery for Co-Occurring Disorders Graduate

Addiction Counselor Questions

If you are learning about the substance abuse counseling field, we suggest starting with the basics. Now that you have a better understanding of how to become a substance abuse counselor, we invite you to browse frequently asked questions from behavioral health counseling students about what SUD counselors do, where they work, and other general information about counseling as a career.

Jobs in substance abuse counseling are in high demand. Once you gain the necessary training and experience, you'll have many professional options. 

Becoming an Addiction Counselor: Review

The treatment of substance use disorders is historically known as substance abuse counseling. We now refer to this field as substance use disorder counseling. Becoming a substance use disorder counselor is a rewarding profession that requires education and training. To become a counselor, you must earn a degree in counseling or a related field, such as social work or psychology. After completing your degree, you must gain supervised counseling experience. Training typically involves completing an internship or working under the supervision of a licensed addiction counselor. As a counselor, you will be able to do the following:

  • Help vulnerable people improve their lives.
  • Make a positive impact on society.
  • Build strong relationships with clients.
  • Enjoy a meaningful, heartfelt career.

You'll need to get clinical practice hours in a professional setting. Substance abuse counselors must be good listeners with strong empathy and the ability to set boundaries. This profession requires specialized training and work experience. You'll likely need to earn an addiction counseling degree. Once you have completed your supervised experience, you can apply for a counseling license in your state. Then you can begin working as a professional SUD counselor. With hard work, you can become a successful counselor and make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Choosing to become a substance use disorder counselor is a remarkable, meaningful, humanitarian career choice. A degree from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School will allow you to impact vulnerable individuals, families, and communities positively.