Addiction Counselor

Addiction counselors help patients overcome dependence on drugs, alcohol, and destructive behaviors like gambling. Counselors intervene when patients are often at their lowest points in their struggles with addiction. A certified drug and alcohol counselor may also work with the families of addicts to assist the healing process. These professionals may work in outpatient facilities, inpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, or hospitals.

Often, a certified addiction counselor has a personal passion for the work; some have overcome substance abuse themselves, or have witnessed a loved one's struggle. People may also be drawn to this specialty because they can make a real difference at work every day. With about 115 people in the country dying from opioid overdose each day, the demand for these specialized counselors is rising significantly. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the job growth in this field will reach 23% by 2026.

It is essential for addiction counselors to have a passion for their work because it takes a significant amount of time to become one. Depending on the state, employer, and position one seeks, a professional may need a master's degree to become an addiction counselor. In some cases, a counselor may practice with a bachelor's degree and subsequent certification instead. The average annual wage for this position is $44,160, but factors like location and industry can change this figure considerably.

Becoming an Addiction Counselor

Degree Requirements

Each state sets its own requirements to become an addiction counselor, and graduates can enter the field at many different levels. It's important for students to check with their state boards to determine the exact qualifications for each level. The minimum requirement for entry-level positions is typically a bachelor's degree. These counselors can work with patients but often have many restrictions on the scope of their work. For example, an undergraduate-level addiction counselor cannot go into private practice, and they typically work under a graduate-level supervisor after getting licensed.

A graduate-level addiction counseling degree can open more doors and increase the scope of what a counselor can do. After licensure, these professionals can provide drug addiction counseling in their own private practices. Graduate-level addictions counselors typically get paid more, as well, since facilities need their expertise to fill specialized positions. Whether you want to pursue an undergraduate or graduate drug addiction counseling degree, many online options are available. It's important for students to remember that many of these programs require an internship or practicum, and online learners may need to make these arrangements with a local counseling center. Additionally, any program a student chooses should be accredited. Undergraduate learners should prioritize institutions that have regional accreditation, as the credits from these schools are more likely to transfer. For graduate programs, degree candidates should look for schools approved by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Clinical Experience Requirements

In many states, substance abuse counselors must complete supervised training hours before applying for licensure. The number of hours needed depends on the jurisdiction, the licensure level the applicant desires, and the candidate's level of education.

Professionals with either an associate or bachelor's degree can become licensed alcohol and drug counselors (LADC) in New Hampshire. However, counselors with an associate degree must spend more time working under supervision than their peers with undergraduate degrees. Meanwhile, candidates with master's degrees can become Master Licensed Alcohol And Drug Counselors (MLADC) in the state and must also possess post-graduate clinical experience.

While the requirements vary between states, undergraduate-level candidates spend between 4,000 and 10,000 hours under supervision before gaining licensure; master's licensure candidates may need as few as 1,000 clinical hours. Graduates of all levels spend much of this service time in face-to-face contact with substance abuse patients.

These candidates use some of the hours reviewing cases with supervisors and pouring over notes. Counselors-to-be may complete these internships in prisons, rehabilitation facilities, private practices, or hospitals. During these intensive practicums, candidates hone interpersonal and communication skills that will assist them in their careers. They may also encounter obstacles and scenarios that require them to apply their critical thinking skills.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

States set their own requirements for licensure, including whether to offer licenses to candidates with bachelor's degrees. However, all states ensure that private practice addiction counselors have a master's degree and the corresponding license. Some states only allow these individuals to treat patients, while others enable undergraduate-level counselors to treat patients under supervision. Some licensing boards may also want to see transcripts, letters of recommendation, and supervisor logs from a candidate's internship. Applicants should carefully study the requirements for their states before making plans. The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network lists all the governing bodies for the states and the contact information for each.

In addition to legally required licenses, counselors can earn certifications that help them advance their careers. Alcohol and drug addiction counseling is different than other types of mental health counseling, therefore earning a specialty certification can boost an applicant's resume for a substance abuse counseling position. While the law does not require substance abuse counselors to have these certifications, many employers appreciate it, and some even require this qualification. The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) and the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) both provide certification opportunities for substance abuse counselors. The CRCC offers these certifications for master's students and those who have completed a qualifying graduate program. The NBCC only provides certification to graduates from a master's program or higher. Both certifications are well-respected and help recipients earn more money in their careers.

The Educational Path to an Addiction Counseling Career

While a bachelor's degree is the minimum level of education required in many states, there are plenty of reasons that a counselor may pursue a master's or doctoral degree. Counselors with graduate degrees often have more freedom in their practices and can fill higher positions. Also, an addiction counselor can make more money with a higher degree. The chart below shows the financial difference an additional degree can make.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Addictions Counseling $64,100
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Bachelor's Degree

Like many bachelor's degrees, it takes a full-time student about four years to earn an undergraduate addiction counseling degree. However, some online schools offer accelerated programs that take three years or fewer to complete. Some schools do not provide substance abuse as a concentration, so students can instead opt for mental health counseling as their major. Learners who want to become addiction counselors can complete related electives and find internships in rehabilitation centers. Some students may also major in related fields like social services or psychology during undergraduate school. As long as the program is accredited and meets the state's requirements, this is a great option.

Most undergraduate programs do not require internships, however this experience may provide graduates an advantage when pursuing jobs. Additionally, students should select programs approved by the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) or The National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC). These organizations accredit programs that meet or exceed rigorous standards.

While a bachelor's degree offers counselors a solid foundation in the discipline, it's essential for students to consider graduate school. Students who limit themselves to a bachelor's degree tend to make far less money over the course of a career and may feel stifled by the restrictions on their work.

Master's Degree

After completing an undergraduate program, a student may take an additional two to three years to pursue a master's degree. The exact length depends on whether a student attends part time or completed an unrelated undergraduate major. Some universities provide programs that are strictly tailored to addiction counseling, while most institutions feature psychology or counseling programs in which learners pursue a concentration in substance abuse counseling. As part of a master's program, students complete an internship at a facility that provides addiction counseling. Moreover, the CACREP is the primary accrediting body for all of these types of master's programs. Students should be sure that their program is accredited.

While a master's degree is sufficient for counselors who want to pursue a private practice, those wanting to teach, conduct research, or be administrators need a doctorate to reach their goals. Furthermore, counselors who receive doctoral degrees earn higher average salaries than their counterparts with a master's.

Sample Courses

  • Ethical Issues in Addictions Counseling: Addictions counselors encounter unique and challenging ethical decisions in their careers. This course prepares graduates to make good decisions in these times.
  • Assessment Techniques in Counseling: Students gain tools for assessing an addicted person's mental state and look for comorbid conditions. This includes learning ways to get the truth from people who may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid.
  • Case Management Practices: People who struggle with addiction may work with the same counselor for prolonged periods. This class teaches learners how to manage long term cases.
  • Treatment Planning and Relapse Prevention: Getting an addicted person sober is only the beginning of a substance abuse counselor's work. In this class, students prepare plans to keep patients from relapsing.
  • Substance Use Counseling with Special Populations: The effects of addiction can be compounded in people who live in poverty, with other disabilities, or in otherwise disadvantaged communities. This course introduces methods and practices for helping these populations.

Doctoral Degree

Counselors wanting to earn a doctorate in addiction counseling can find a program that is specifically designed for the field, or they may opt for a general psychology doctorate with a concentration in addiction therapy. Often, it is the dissertation subject that defines a Ph.D. student's specialty. Many schools structure classes so that learners work on their dissertations throughout the program. Since it can take up to three years for a learner to complete their doctorate, this provides students plenty of time to polish their dissertations. Just before graduation, candidates defend their dissertations to panels of professors.

In most cases, doctoral programs require applicants to have a master's degree, and some schools may also require work experience. Generally, these programs require at least a 3.0 GPA and letters of recommendation. Counselors with a doctorate have more job opportunities than those with a master's degree. Some doctoral programs prepare counselors to become professors, and others may prepare them to manage clinics or government agencies.

Sample Courses

  • Practical Psychopharmacology in Addiction Treatment: This course introduces students to medications that may affect people who struggle with addiction. Though this does not give graduates prescribing privileges, it can help counselors work alongside a medical team.
  • Multicultural Issues in Addiction: Addictions affect people from all walks of life. This course helps students understand how different cultural backgrounds may change how they approach treatment.
  • Advanced Inferential Statistics: Research is a large part of any doctorate program. As such, it's important for students to perform and analyze statistics.
  • Substance-Use Program Design: Students who want to manage clinics learn how to plan a clinical program for addicted people.
  • Issues and Trends in Addiction-Related Treatments: Students keep up with the latest news in the field in this course. The class ensures that graduates are fully prepared to be effective in their field.

Skills Gained in an Addiction Counseling Program

Through hard work in classes and internships, learners hone several skills that are vital to their success as counselors. These students must have excellent interpersonal, communication, listening, research, and analytical skills before they become licensed professionals. Only then can counselors gain their patients' trust and begin the healing process.

  • Interpersonal Skills: Interpersonal skills are vital to the counseling profession. These abilities allow a counselor to build a trusting relationship with a patient, which is a vital first step in helping a person who struggles with addiction. While classes can stress the importance of these skills, students learn to use them through face-to-face contact with patients and observation from a trained professional.
  • Communication Skills: At the very heart of counseling is communication. The environment must be open and honest for the patient to get help. Sometimes patients do not have great communication skills, so counselors must be experts in this area. Through classes and hands-on experience, students learn to read between the lines and communicate in many forms.
  • Listening Skills: Part of having great communication is being an active listener. Not only do substance abuse counselors need to hear what their patients say, but they also need to listen to pauses and small details in speech.
  • Research Skills: As the body of research surrounding addiction continues to grow, counselors must learn to interpret data and scientific papers correctly. Understanding the foundations of research helps professionals incorporate new data and theories into their daily practices.
  • Analytical Skills: When substance abuse counselors listen to patients, they identify behavioral patterns, critically consider new approaches to treatment, and measure the success of treatments. All of these behaviors require strong analytical skills.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Addiction Counselors

The BLS projects that careers in substance abuse counseling will grow by 23% by 2026. This growth rate is more than three times of the average career growth rate in the United States over the same period. Even when compared to similar jobs like social workers, substance abuse counselors have significantly more growth in their future. While the whole field is rapidly expanding, some positions may be more appealing than others.

The type of employer has a substantial effect on how much an addiction counselor can expect to make. For example, those who work in hospitals have an average salary that is almost $10,000 greater than substance abuse counselors in outpatient care centers. However, there are many more available positions in outpatient centers than in hospitals. The chart below shows which fields have some of the best job prospects.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Outpatient Care Centers 22,250 2.67% $42,930
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 18,240 2.98% $39,690
Individual and Family Services 12,560 0.74% $41,800
Local Government 6,620 0.12% $48,470
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 5,050 0.09% $52,640

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 18,240 2.98% $39,690
Outpatient Care Centers 22,250 2.67% $42,930
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 4,790 2.04% $47,210
Other Residential Care Facilities 2,580 1.60% $35,800
Individual and Family Services 12,560 0.74% $41,800

Source: BLS

How Much Do Addiction Counselors Make?

In addition to the type of employer, several factors influence a counselor's earning potential, including a position's geographic location. Rural areas, or other places with high demand for these skills, tend to pay more than places where the job market is saturated. The industry in which a counselor works can affect pay rates. Counselors working for schools or insurance companies make more than their peers.

Experience also leads to higher pay rates: those with more than 20 years of experience make an average of $10,000 more per year than entry-level counselors. Certifications and other resume builders can help substance abuse counselors fill higher-paying positions. Since competition can be fierce for these jobs, employers often require qualifications such as previous experience or a certification. In general, jobs that require bachelor's degrees naturally pay less than those requiring graduate degrees.

Salaries for Addiction Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Substance Abuse Counselor $34,000 $38,000 $41,000 $44,000

Top-Paying Industries for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Junior Colleges 30 $73,050
Scientific Research and Developmental Services 260 $67,240
Insurance Carriers N/A $56,520
Elementary and Secondary Schools 3,660 $56,260
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 770 $55,760

Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Addiction Counselors

A counselor's location can impact their overall earning potential. States with counseling shortages have employers who are willing to pay much more to secure top talent. However, counselors who take these positions may need to make sacrifices. For example, rural areas are isolated but often pay substance abuse counselors much more. Professionals should also consider licensing requirements and the cost of living before deciding where to practice. The highest-paying states for addiction counselors are New Mexico, Alaska, North Dakota, New Jersey, and New York.

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Related Careers for Addiction Counselors

Earning an addiction counseling degree can lead to a remarkable career. While many of these graduates go on to help rehabilitate people with addictions, others join related career fields. The skills that counselors learn in school, internships, and their careers can easily translate into success elsewhere. For example, addiction counselors can use their listening and communication skills to become career counselors. They can also use their understanding of social issues and bureaucracies to become social workers. The table below shows some of the related career choices.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
School and Career Counselors These professionals work in schools, universities, and job placement organizations to help people find careers suited to their skills. $55,410 Master's
Marriage and Family Therapists Much like the way addiction counselors work with families, these therapists bring couples and families together for counseling. $48,790 Master's
Rehabilitation Counselors People with mental, physical, and developmental disabilities seek help from rehabilitation counselors. These professionals help patients cope with their disabilities. $34,860 Master's
Social Worker Social workers help clients in hospitals, shelters, foster care, and government agencies navigate social welfare systems. $47,980 Master's
Postsecondary Teachers After becoming experts in addiction counseling, some professionals decide to teach the next generation of counselors. $76,000 Doctoral

Source: BLS

How to Find an Addiction Counseling Job

While it's true that addiction counseling is a growing field, job candidates still need to work hard to secure the right job. New graduates may have to be creative in building their resumes, including earning additional certifications. These can catch a manager's attention and earn a candidate an interview before other applicants. Graduates can also ask former professors and supervisors to act as references. Furthermore, many campuses hold resume-building workshops for upcoming and recent graduates. These short classes help candidates learn what to include on their resumes, what to leave out, and how to best stand out from the crowd.

An impressive resume is just the first step to securing a dream job; applicants should network whenever possible. One of the best ways to do this is to attend a job fairs offered by your college or university; campuses often host these events and invite students, other members of the community, and employers. Large employers, such as hospitals, commonly host job fairs. Candidates may additionally benefit from online resources to find the perfect job: NAADAC has a job board just for addiction professionals. Counseling Crossing is a great resource for online job seekers throughout the counseling field. Meetup.com connects like-minded colleagues and sets up in-person networking events. Finally, graduates can reach out to friends, family, and classmates they know in the industry. These people may know of a job opening that is not posted on job boards. It's vital for job seekers to use all available resources to land the perfect position.

Professional Organizations for Addiction Counselors

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