Substance Abuse Counselor Career Guide

Substance abuse counselors provide alcohol counseling, drug counseling, and counseling for related addictions to their clients. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups substance abuse counselors with behavioral disorder and mental health counselors, and this group is robustly growing at 18.4% by 2032 at over six times the national job growth average.1 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.

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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. Licensure may or may not require a college degree. However, earning a degree usually qualifies the prospective counselor for higher levels of licensure, expanded career opportunities, and potentially higher salaries. The steps to becoming a substance abuse counselor typically include:

  1. Earn a degree or certificate that fulfills the level of training required by your state and license type.
  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.

Substance Abuse Counselor Licensure and Schools by State

Substance abuse counselor requirements vary widely by state. Check with your state below for more licensure information and to learn about substance abuse counselor programs offered by schools in your state.

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description

The license and job title for drug and alcohol counselors 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, chemical dependency professional, and certified drug and alcohol counselor.

Drug and alcohol counselors provide treatment and guidance on behavior to clients who are living with addictions or want to maintain sobriety. 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, a related group of addictions, or 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 within a group practice. They may also work in 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 have physical ailments such as liver failure that can be related to alcohol abuse. In this case, the substance abuse counselor would treat the mental aspects of addiction while doctors and others on the care team treat the physical health conditions.

In addition to providing direct counseling and group therapy, substance abuse counselors must complete paperwork, prepare lessons for therapy groups, and review treatment plans. A critical part of their job is to thoroughly document counseling sessions and track of patient outcomes. Drug and alcohol counselors may also provide referrals to other professionals such as medical doctors and psychologists when clients have problems that fall outside their scope of practice.

Substance Abuse Counselor Education Requirements

In most states and circumstances, substance abuse counselors must be licensed or certified by the state in which they intend to work.

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.

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

Many states have more than one level of credentialing, also called tiered licensure or credentialing, with entry-level credentials requiring practitioners to be supervised. In some states, addiction counselors must sign a statement attesting to their sobriety and maintain that sobriety for their license to remain valid. In many states, Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) can also work as substance abuse counselors.

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

Substance Abuse Counselor Careers by Degree Level

According to a survey from O*NET OnLine, 41% of respondents working in the industry said that a master’s degree is required to be a substance abuse counselor, while 24% said that a high school diploma or equivalent is required.3 Since the career options available depend on the degree level attained, we have designed the table below to help you research common jobs and education requirements. State licensing standards for substance abuse counselors also vary from state to state, so there are significant differences in the education level required for some job titles. In addition to variations in state standards, you will also find differences 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 TitleMinimum Degree
Commonly Required
Addictions Prevention SpecialistAssociate’s
Counselor AideAssociate’s
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianAssociate’s
Human Services WorkerAssociate’s
Licensed Chemical Dependency CounselorAssociate’s
Mental Health TechnicianAssociate’s
Rehabilitation TherapistAssociate’s
Substance Abuse TechnicianAssociate’s
Addiction CounselorBachelor’s
Addiction SpecialistBachelor’s
Alcohol and Drug CounselorBachelor’s
Substance Abuse Case ManagerBachelor’s
Chemical Dependency CounselorBachelor’s
Substance Abuse Residence ManagerBachelor’s
Substance Abuse CounselorBachelor’s
Addiction Treatment Manager/CoordinatorMaster’s
Outpatient TherapistMaster’s
Professional CounselorMaster’s
Research AssistantMaster’s
Department ChairDoctorate
Substance Abuse Program ManagerDoctorate

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was $53,490 per year as of 2021.1 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.1 However, on the whole, the states with the highest concentration of jobs in this group include Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington, Colorado, and Montana.1 As a group, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn the highest average salary in Utah ($66,190 per year), followed by Alaska ($65,090), Washington DC ($64,920), Rhode Island ($64,640), and New Jersey ($63,430).1

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% in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling jobs through 2030 (over five times the average job growth), with an expected 41,000 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

Substance Abuse Counselor Career Interviews

  • Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, Mike Elliot
  • Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Jennifer See

Frequently Asked Questions

How much do substance abuse counselors make?

On average, substance abuse counselors earned $53,490 per year as of 2021.1 This can be higher or lower depending on the individual’s education, experience, license status, geographic area, and other factors.

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 state-level license or certification. You can learn more about drug and alcohol counselor licensure through our counselor licensing guide.

Is there a specialty for alcohol abuse counseling?

Yes, some specialized counselors 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.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211018.htm
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. O*NET OnLine, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1011.00
4. National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers: https://www.naatp.org/about-us
5. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.org/Projections/LongTerm