Ben Barrett is a clinical social worker and addictions professional. He founded the website The How to Social Worker, which is written through his own personal experiences and hardships, to promote the intersection of personal and professional development.
Ben also supervises a multidisciplinary team that serves adults with co-occurring disorders at a community mental health center. He is always interested in furthering the profession of social work and addiction and in dispelling stigma. For self-care, he writes, spends time with his family, and plays video games.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as a substance abuse counselor? Was it something that always interested you?
Substance abuse counseling was not something I was always interested in. As I grew into my career in mental health, it became very obvious how much adults with mental illness were affected by substance use. My agency was really pushing for staff to get trained, so I stepped up to the plate. I really wanted to make myself as valuable as I could.
Little did I know that there was a whole world that I was ignorant to. Substance use was everywhere. It became very interesting learning how symptoms of mental illness can be affected and even mimicked by various psychoactive drugs. Once I began to see my clients in this new light, I was hooked.
What steps did you take to become a counselor?
Generally speaking, the steps to become a substance abuse counselor are going to be different across states. In Michigan, you can provide substance abuse counseling at the bachelor level if you have appropriate credentialing through the Michigan Certification Board for Addiction Professionals. Most professionals at this level will be credentialed as a certified alcohol and drug counselor. They likely will be running groups and providing some less skilled clinical services.
There are various other credentials through the state of Michigan. In most cases, counselors will have a master's degree in addition to credentialing for addiction through the state. I applied for a development plan, which allowed me to serve as a substance abuse counselor while being trained. At the conclusion of this training and graduation with my master's degree, I took a state exam and applied for certification as a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor.
It is super important to check with your state's regulatory boards before pursuing any credential or degree to ensure you will have the necessary training and experience prior to investing time and money. I have met several people who found at the end of their schooling that they would not be eligible for licensure! It is not the school's responsibility to tell you what licensure looks like in your home state.
What was your educational journey like?
My educational journey was rocky. My high school academics were good. I graduated with honors and went on to a large, out-of-state institution. While there, I didn't have much direction. A college degree was something that I naively thought would guarantee me success on its own. During those studies, I goofed around a bit more than I should have and graduated with marks I'm not proud of. This nearly prevented me from getting into graduate school. In fact, I was on academic probation for my first semester as a result!
It took a few years of working in the field of mental health before I really began to find an interest to go back to school. At the time, I was working on my development plan as an addictions counselor and began pursuing my master of social work (MSW). Three years later, I graduated with a 4.0 GPA after going to school, working full time, and having a family. It was tough, but those added stressors are part of my educational journey to make it a more rewarding and fruitful experience.
What degrees and certifications did you need to earn for your current position?
The State of Michigan will allow an individual to provide substance abuse counseling if you retain licensure through the state, which can include a limited license. In my current role, I do not bill substance use dollars directly, so I'm not required to have my advanced alcohol and drug counselor certification (CAADC). However, it was my intent to get this advanced certification to keep integrity to the field and maintain added authority in the subject.
That being said, my role only requires master level licensure. With the addition of my CAADC, I can operate in more of a dual role and counsel solely substance use disorder clients if needed. Such nuances further identify the importance of understanding what degrees and licensures you are wanting to receive.
In what ways did your undergraduate studies differ from your graduate studies?
As an undergraduate, I completed a bachelor of arts in psychology and spanish language and literature. Psychology provided an amazing framework for my later education; however, it was more theoretical in nature. Yes, we had labs and other practical applications for the psychological know-how we received. Above all, however, the studies centered around preparing students for entering graduate school for Ph.D.s in psychology.
Graduate school was totally different. This was, in part, because I had been in the field of human service already and was familiar with many practices. Though, the education was entirely applicable to direct service. We learned theories and how we utilize them in being an agent for change with others.
What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a degree and career in counseling, or more specifically substance abuse counseling?
My first piece of advice is to not get frustrated by feeling as though you don't have a desired skill set. The skills that you will learn are more than what can be simply taught in a classroom. You are entering the field because you have the knack to begin with. It may not seem like you do now, but through education and training, you'll see it become more refined.
Secondly, know that counseling -- and even more so substance use counseling -- can be very frustrating. There is no point in your career where you will make someone change. You can be an agent of change; however, no one ever changes without making the decision to do so themselves. There are often external consequences that motivate any one person, and that is your role: to be one of those external motivators by enhancing change talk and highlighting discrepancies in values and behaviors.
This mindset is hard to really grasp. It seems easy at surface value, but when you see the same person relapse time and time again, you can become jaded. If you embrace your role as the agent of change and see the minute steps forward, you will guard yourself against burnout.
What was the most impactful aspect of your education?
The most impactful part of my education was my internship experiences. Even though I was working in the field while going to school, there were many scenarios I had not yet seen. A book can tell you all about withdrawal and substance-induced psychosis. It is a mind opening experience to see it firsthand.
What was also impactful as I worked my internship was [learning] that the stigma and media purview of substance use and individuals with addiction is wrong. I met some amazingly resilient people who really struggled to find sobriety. The internship process really humanized addiction for me.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
The most fulfilling part of my job is seeing someone really embrace change. That might be finally agreeing to go to a detox program or simply seeing me on a regular basis. Over the time I've worked with this population, I've learned to embrace any wins I can. That is not to take away from the positive change that I see in the client that I'm working with either. There have been some clients who have relapsed a dozen times, and it is important for us as counselors to be just as supportive on the twelfth time as the first.
It's also fulfilling to see my skill set, which I've worked hard to refine, promote change in others. You can learn as a counselor how to better support someone as they enter their twelfth attempt at sobriety. And it is this additional aptitude that, when noticed, drives my internal motivation to learn and apply that knowledge and skill more.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of your job?
I would say the most challenging part of my job, aside from helping people change who are affected by numerous variables that are changing at an exponential rate, is the dispelling of misinformation. There is an enormous amount of bad and old-school information out there that clients and families rely upon. It is our job as counselors to help educate them in ways that are of value to them and replace [misconceptions] with science-based fact.
As counselors, we must build rapport and respect with those we serve. Though our fancy education is required to practice, it does not mean that our clients value it. We have to find other ways to connect with clients so they have faith in our ability to help them. That sometimes means providing self-disclosure in a limited context to build that partnership and trust.
What are some of the necessary skills someone pursuing a career in substance abuse counseling must have?
Substance abuse counseling is not a hard skill. We do not have an equation that tells us exactly how to build sobriety with someone in front of us. So what does that mean for a necessary skill set? Humility and a willingness to make mistakes. We have to look at each session as an opportunity to learn more from our client and about ourselves and our counseling style. You must be able to accept feedback and modify your approach to help build sobriety with anyone in front of you regardless of their background.
When you meet a client for the first time, you have a brief moment to capture their attention and instill hope. There are many times you'll miss the mark, and that's not your fault. But when you can really meet someone where they're at and see for a moment their struggle, your humility will be lasting to them and encourage their return.
Any final thoughts for us?
In substance abuse counseling, we are constantly asked to do more with less. The opioid epidemic is the latest example of this. We must continue to learn and become more efficient in our practices. The next epidemic is on the horizon, and it will be you starting out in the field helping to create change. I encourage you to take on the challenge.