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Substance Abuse Counselor Career Guide

There are about 102,000 substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in the US.1 Substance abuse counselors provide alcohol counseling, drug counseling, and counseling for related addictions. Other common terms for substance abuse counselors include drug abuse counselor, drug counselor, alcohol abuse counselor, and addiction counselor. They can be found working in a wide variety of settings including private treatment centers, group treatment centers, and community health centers, as well as in doctor’s offices and hospitals. The majority (19%) of substance abuse counselors work in outpatient centers, though many (10%) are employed in inpatient facilities.2 This guide provides detailed information on how to become a substance abuse counselor, common requirements, and salary and career outlook information for substance abuse counselors.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

Drug and alcohol counselors provide treatment and guidance on behavior to clients who are struggling with addictions. Addiction counseling can take place in one-on-one or group settings. An addiction counselor may choose to focus on the treatment of one particular addiction or related group of addictions or may treat the spectrum of addiction disorders. There are a variety of treatment approaches for counseling those with addictions, and addiction counselors will typically specialize in certain approaches to therapy.

Addiction counselors may work in private practice or independently or they may be found working within a group practice. They may also be found on the staff of hospitals and other large health centers that treat a range of health issues as part of a patient care team. For example, an individual with alcoholism may be suffering from physical ailments such as liver failure that can be related to alcohol abuse, and the substance abuse counselor may treat the mental aspects of addiction while doctors and others on the care team treat the physical disorders.

Substance Abuse Counselor Requirements and Common Tasks

In most states and circumstances, substance abuse counselors must be licensed or certified by the state in which they intend to work. Unlike what is seen in most other types of counseling, substance abuse counselors can become licensed or credentialed in some states with as little as a high school diploma or associate degree plus supervised experience working in alcohol and drug counseling. However, this can vary widely by state; in some states, a bachelor’s or master’s degree is required. Many states have more than one level of credentialing, with entry-level credentials requiring practitioners to be supervised. In some states, addiction counselors must sign a statement attesting to their sobriety and must maintain that sobriety in order for their license to remain valid.

In addition to providing direct counseling and group therapy, substance abuse counselors spend a large part of the day on routine tasks such as paperwork. Thoroughly documenting what occurs in counseling sessions and keeping track of patient outcomes is a critical part of this job. Drug and alcohol counselors may also provide referrals to other professionals such as medical doctors and psychologists when clients have problems that fall outside of their scope of practice.

Continuing education is a common requirement for substance abuse counselors, as they usually are required to complete a certain number of hours of formal training each year in order to maintain their license. Many substance abuse counselors also choose to work towards additional certifications and/or higher education.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Since substance abuse counselors occupy a position of trust with their clients and the public at large, all 50 states have set requirements governing counselor licensure. As noted above, licensure may or may not require a college degree. However, earning a degree will usually qualify the prospective counselor for higher levels of licensure, and therefore, expanded career opportunities. The steps to become a substance abuse counselor typically involve:

  1. Earn a degree or certificate that fulfills the substance abuse counselor training required by your state.
  2. Gain supervised experience in substance abuse therapy while working under the direction of a licensed counselor (if required in your state).
  3. Take any counselor exams required for your desired license.
  4. Apply for a license.
  5. Begin applying for substance abuse counselor jobs.

The license and job title for drug and alcohol counselors can vary by state. Common terms include certified addiction counselor, licensed clinical addictions specialist, certified substance abuse counselor, licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor, licensed substance abuse counselor, and certified drug and alcohol counselor.

Substance Abuse Counselor Education and Job Training

In some states, you can work as a substance abuse counselor, sometimes called a technician, trainee, or assistant, with a high school diploma if you are working under the direct supervision of a licensed counselor. However, it is more common for states to require licensure based on at least some formal training in alcohol and drug counseling, be that a certificate or degree program. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of substance abuse counselor degree programs that can help you meet these requirements.

If you already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but not a substance abuse counseling degree, you can typically qualify for licensure as an addiction counselor by completing a certificate program. A master’s degree is another option that can help you launch a career in this field. Be sure to check your state’s requirements before committing to a program.

Substance Abuse Counselor Careers by Degree Level

Since the type of career you can expect with a degree in substance abuse varies by degree level, we have designed the table below to help you research common jobs and requirements. Since licensing standards for substance abuse counselors vary from state to state, there are also significant differences in the degrees required for certain job titles from state to state. In addition to state standards, you will also find variances in how employers define a given role. With this in mind, the below table outlines the general relationship between a given degree and associated careers, though requirements in your area or for a specific job posting may be higher or lower.

Counseling Job TitleAssociate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Commonly Degree RequiredPhD Commonly Required
Addiction CounselorYes
Addictions Prevention SpecialistYes
Addiction SpecialistYes
Addiction Treatment Manager/CoordinatorYes
Alcohol and Drug CounselorYes
Substance Abuse Case ManagerYes
Chemical Dependency CounselorYes
Counselor AideYes
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianYes
Department ChairYes
Human Services WorkerYes
Licensed Chemical Dependency CounselorYes
Mental Health TechnicianYes
Outpatient TherapistYes
Professional CounselorYes
ProfessorYes
Substance Abuse Program ManagerYes
Rehabilitation TherapistYes
Research AssistantYes
ResearcherYes
Substance Abuse Residence ManagerYes
Substance Abuse CounselorYes
Substance Abuse TechnicianYes

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is $47,790 per year.1 Note the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors with mental health counselors for occupational employment and wages reporting, which may influence geographic statistics. However, on the whole, California has the highest number of counselors employed in this group (31,270), followed by Pennsylvania (20,860), Massachusetts (15,880), New York (14,610), and Virginia (12,620).2 As a group, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn the highest average salary in Utah ($66,330 per year), followed by Alaska ($62,920), Washington DC ($59,850), Oregon ($59,390), and New Jersey ($58,410).2

Due in part to the increase in addiction disorders across the US as well as jail diversion programs for those convicted of drug-related crimes, the job outlook for substance abuse counselors is bright.2 It has been estimated that 23 million Americans over the age of 12 need treatment for substance abuse disorders, but only 10% receive treatment.4 Projections show an increase of 23.2% in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling jobs through 2026, with an expected 14,100 average annual openings including replacements.5 Those who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in alcohol or drug counseling or a related field should have the strongest job prospects overall.2

Additional Resources

  • NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC): Represents addictions professionals working in the US, Canada, and abroad, providing continuing education, certification guidance, and networking opportunities.
  • International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors (IAAOC): An organization that services the needs of individuals at the intersections of addictions counseling and criminal justice/forensics, with an emphasis on advocating for appropriate treatments for this special population.
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP): A professional society consisting of treatment center and clinical group members and their affiliates that provides resources designed to increase the availability and quality of addiction treatment.
  • Frequently Asked Questions

    How much do substance abuse counselors make?

    On average, substance abuse counselors earn $47,790 per year.1 This can be higher or lower depending on the individual’s education, experience, license status, geographic area, and other factors.

    How much do drug counselors make?

    Drug counselors who specialize in treating drug addiction disorders are grouped with substance abuse counselors for salary reporting purposes, with an average annual salary of $47,790 per year.1

    What does it take to become a certified addiction counselor?

    To become a certified addiction counselor, you must meet the licensure requirements of your state. This typically involves completing a degree or certificate in alcohol and drug counseling, earning supervised experience, and passing a qualifying exam.

    How can I qualify for substance abuse counselor jobs?

    With the expected increase in substance abuse counselor jobs in the coming years, the outlook for future counselors is bright. Qualifications for these jobs will vary by state, employer, and geographic area, but will typically require some type of state-level license or certification. You can learn more about drug and alcohol counselor licensure through our counselor licensing guide.

    What state has the highest average substance abuse counselor salary?

    As of 2018, Utah had the highest average substance abuse counselor salary, at $66,330 per year.2 Tennessee had the lowest average addiction counselor salary, at $38,030 per year.2 Factors that influence salaries include metropolitan area, demand for counselors, local cost of living, and counselor qualifications.

    Is there a specialty for alcohol abuse counseling?

    Yes, there are specialized counselors who focus on providing alcohol counseling. In most cases, they will hold the same license as a professional counselor or substance abuse counselor. They may have had additional training specific to recognizing and treating alcohol addiction and related disorders, such as a postgraduate certificate or other formal training.

    References:
    1. O*NET OnLine, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1011.00
    2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm
    3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/Oes/current/oes211018.htm
    4. National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers: https://www.naatp.org/about-us
    5. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm