How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor in Pennsylvania

The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently reported a 16.9% increase in Pennsylvania drug overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017. The state's health department cites the state's heroin and prescription opioid epidemics as its worst public health crises. Consequently, substance abuse counselors enjoy a high demand in the state. In fact, the governor signed a series of disaster declarations dedicating resources to fighting opioid addiction.

The Pennsylvania Certification Board (PCB) credentials substance abuse counselors at four levels: certified associate addiction counselor (CAAC), certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC), certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor (CAADC), or associate addiction counselor (AAC).

Continue reading for information regarding certification levels, education and experience requirements, and maintenance and renewal. This page also includes exam and application procedures and resources for aspiring Pennsylvania substance abuse counselors.

Counseling License and Career Requirements in Pennsylvania

Explore more pathways to becoming a counselor in Pennsylvania here

Education and Experience Requirements

The sections below describe the prerequisites for applying for substance abuse counseling certification, including education and college degrees, program accreditation, and counselor competencies attained through supervised experience.

They also outline the certification processes and list resources to help applicants decide whether substance abuse counseling certification in Pennsylvania would be right for them.

Academic Requirements

CAAC certification does not require a degree; students can meet requirements with a high school diploma or GED, relevant coursework, work experience, and an examination. CADC candidates should hold a bachelor's degree or equivalent, and the CAADC requires a master's degree or higher. New counselors working toward full certification may apply for AAC designation and should hold a high school diploma or GED.

The most direct educational path to becoming a substance abuse counselor consists of earning an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degree in counseling from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

Interested in pursuing an education in substance abuse counseling? See the following pages to learn about counseling academic programs by level:

Substance Abuse Counseling Coursework

At the high school/GED CAAC and bachelor's CADC levels, certification requires 300 hours of coursework relevant to addiction counseling, including 100 hours of alcohol- and drug-specific instruction and six hours of professional ethics and responsibilities.

Those seeking master's-level CAADC certification must complete 180 hours of coursework in substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, including six hours of professional ethics and responsibilities.

AACs need 100 hours of coursework in screening assessment and engagement; treatment planning, collaboration, and referral; counseling and education; and professional ethics.

The state requires proof of competency through supervised experience hours.

Practicum and Supervised Practice

Pennsylvania's certification process requires counseling experience hours according to proficiency level: 6,000 hours for CAAC including 300 supervised hours, 4000 hours for CADC including 200 supervised hours, and 2,000 hours for CAADC including 100 supervised hours. A minimum of 10 supervised hours must cover each of these areas: screening assessment and engagement; treatment planning, collaboration, and referral; counseling and education; and professional ethics.

The Exam and Application Process for Pennsylvania Substance Abuse Counselors

PCB lists the following steps for certification as a substance abuse counselor:

  1. Submit a signed and notarized application outlining education and experience.

  2. Provide college transcripts or a high school diploma and certificates of attendance for trainings.

  3. Arrange for current supervisor to submit a signed job description form and past employers to send letters verifying employment.

  4. Pay the certification fee pursuant to certification level:

    • CAAC, CADC, and CAADC pay $375, including the exam fee
    • AAC pays $125
  5. Upon approval, applicants must schedule and take the appropriate exam administered by the International Certification & Reciprocal Consortium (IC&RC) as follows:

    • CAAC and CADC take the IC&RC Examination for Alcohol and Drug Counselors
    • CAADC takes the IC&RC Examination for Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselors

    PCB uses a computer-based testing process. Test-takers complete their exams at approved sites, at their convenience. IC&RC offers study guides and practice exams online. Exams comprise 33 job tasks within the framework of these performance areas:

    • Screening, assessment, and engagement
    • Treatment planning
    • Collaboration and referral
    • Counseling
    • Professional and ethical responsibility

    Candidates who fail the exam can retest after 90 days at a cost of $175.

Out-of-State Substance Abuse Counselor Candidates

Out-of-state substance abuse counselors who aim to obtain certification in Pennsylvania must complete and submit a reciprocity application, obtained from the applicant's current licensing board. They do not need to meet other requirements, such as testing, under the reciprocity process.

Pennsylvania does not accept endorsements to credential out-of-state substance abuse counselors.

Substance Abuse Counselor License Maintenance and Renewal Requirements

Active substance abuse counselor certification expires every two years and requires 40 hours of continuing education (CE) relevant to addiction, including three hours of ethics. Counselors must complete their CE hours with courses approved by the PCB, either through a pre-approved organization or by submitting an educational approval form.

Active substance abuse counselor certification expires every two years and requires 40 hours of continuing education

To recertify, counselors submit a renewal application online or by mail prior to the expiration date. PCB sends renewal notices via email. CAACs, CADCs, and CAADCs pay a $200 renewal fee; AACs pay $100.

Lapsed credential holders may recertify up to 12 months after the expiration date with an additional $100 reinstatement fee.

Resources and Organizations for Substance Abuse Counselors in Pennsylvania

The list below contains resources useful to substance abuse counselors, featuring both Pennsylvania-specific and nationally based agencies and organizations. Whether you're considering a career in substance abuse counseling, already a student, or about to apply for a license or certification, these links may help you find CE courses, networking opportunities, statistics and data, and information about recent research.

  • American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry AAAP members include students, faculty, and professionals from across the country committed to improving addiction treatment with the most up-to-date clinical practices, research, and technology. Benefits include mentorships, networking opportunities, and educational materials.
  • APA Div. 28 This organization is a national advocacy, clinical, and research organization focused on psychopharmacology and substance abuse for all experience levels. Resources include a listserv, newsletter, early career advice, and networking opportunities for students.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse This agency advances addiction science through clinical research and career development. NIDA offers continuing education resources for professionals on topics such as the opioid crisis and how addiction changes the brain.
  • Pennsylvania Association for Addiction Professionals The state affiliate of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors unites Pennsylvania counselors and advocates for licensure and certification standards. The organization offers free and reduced-rate CE webinars and publications, networking events, and an online career center.
  • Pennsylvania Certification Board In addition to certifying substance abuse counselors, PCB lists statewide approved CE opportunities. Offered online and in-person, the courses and conferences cover a wide range of topics, including relapse prevention, returning military addiction, and marijuana issues.
  • Pennsylvania Counseling Association This professional association offers regional chapters, divisions, and groups that advocate in the state legislature, provide approved CE, and offer networking and career resources.
  • Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs This division of state government provides tools and resources for addiction and mental health services providers, including links to the certification and licensing boards, data and reports, and policy bulletins.
  • Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Part of the state Department of Health Services, with central and regional field offices, this office provides tools for mental health and substance abuse services providers. These tools include bulletins and reports and links to government resources.
  • Rehabilitation & Community Providers Association This organization offers low-cost training for substance abuse and addiction professionals; opportunities to serve on work groups, committees, and task forces with access to state policymakers; and current issue alerts.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration This federal government agency's mission centers on improving behavioral public health to reduce nationwide mental illness and substance abuse. SAMHSA provides practitioner training, grant funding, and publications covering research, data, and news.

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