Whether you’re a professional or a student interested in a career in substance abuse and/or addiction counseling, it’s likely you’ve realized that there are numerous titles within the field. In fact, almost every state calls their addiction specialists by a different name. It’s probably also become apparent that title differences don’t always denote a variance in position responsibilities. Generally speaking, addiction counselors, substance abuse counselors, and alcohol and drug counselors are all certified to, and responsible for, providing the same core services:

  • Screening
  • Intake
  • Orientation
  • Assessment, Evaluation, and Intervention
  • Referral
  • Treatment Planning
  • Counseling
  • Crisis Intervention
  • Patient Education
  • Case Management
  • Reporting and Record Keeping
  • Consultation with Other Professionals

Different Titles and What They Mean

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If most addiction professionals offer patients the same kind of services, why are there so many titles? While all who possess and maintain their credentials can usually conduct patient assessments, diagnosis, evaluations, and treatments, as well as provide individual and group counseling sessions, certification type matters. A professional’s title helps distinguish the kind of care he or she offers.

Common terms you should be familiar with include:

Counselor

Counselor is often used as an umbrella term for substance abuse and addiction professionals. Those with this designation are not always required to possess advanced degrees and can work in a variety of settings. They may be social workers, medical professionals, or religious leaders with some knowledge of substance abuse and an understanding of how to provide support to patients struggling with addiction. Treatment plans often focus on attaining and maintaining sobriety, as well as identifying and avoiding potential relapse triggers. Common working environments include hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and support groups.

Therapist

While sometimes interchangeable with counselor, therapist is a more frequently regulated and protected term. Those with this designation are often required to have a master’s degree or PhD in psychology, psychiatry, or a related field. They usually have specific training in techniques intended to address not only substance abuse and addiction, but the overall mental and emotional health of their patients. Treatment plans frequently focus on the root of a person’s addiction and/or co-occurring issues, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Common working environments include private practices, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and mental health charities.

Other common terms seen in the field include specialist and master. These often denote specialized addiction treatment skills gained through more targeted education and work experience.

It’s important to realize that the meanings of these terms may differ slightly from state to state or even be used interchangeably within the profession. Some professionals with the designation of counselor do, in fact, have a master’s or doctoral degree and have completed training that qualifies them to perform more in-depth patient treatment and clinical research. Likewise, some states do not regulate the designation of therapist. In these cases, the term may be used to refer to individuals who lack higher-level certification and/or have little formal education in the field. You will need to research these terms in relation to your specific state to gain a better understanding of the credentialing opportunities available to you.

Professional titles that require special credentialing are, however, legally regulated by each state’s practice laws. Individuals who practice without official certification or provide substance abuse and addiction treatment services under a false title without board approval will be held responsible in the court of law.

Nationally Recognized Titles for Professionals

Additionally, organizations like the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) and International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium / Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Inc. (IC&RC) offer a number of professional certifications. While these credentials don’t replace those required by your state, they are nationally standardized and do indicate a certain level of training, education, and experience.

Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC)

NAADAC is the largest professional organization for those who work with substance abuse and addiction patients. It has over 10,000 members and represents over 100,000 addiction professionals in the United States, Canada, and abroad. The association has gained great credulity over the years by providing reliable resources and training opportunities to addiction counselors, therapists, educators, and other healthcare professionals. NAADAC has 47 state affiliates that utilize their materials and established standards during the certification process. The association also offers professional credentials through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP), which is an independently managed branch of the organization. Since 1991, over 21,000 credentials have been awarded with the following designations:

National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC I)

This certification is intended for professionals in addiction-related positions who want to demonstrate the skills they’ve gained during supervised work experiences.

National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC II)

This certification is intended for professionals in addiction-related positions who want to demonstrate the specialized treatment skills they’ve gained during supervised work experiences, as well as undergraduate-level course work.

Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)

This certification is intended for professionals in addiction-related positions who want to demonstrate the specialized treatment skills they’ve gained during supervised work experiences, as well as graduate-level course work.

Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)

This certification is intended for professionals who wish to attain a foundational knowledge of tobacco addiction and develop skills that will enhance counseling strategies when working with tobacco addicts.

National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor (NCAAC)

This certification is intended for professionals who complete a series of standard competencies and demonstrate an understanding of clinical best-practices used to treat adolescents who are struggling with substance abuse disorders.

National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS)

This certification is intended for peer recovery professionals seeking recognition for their work within a particular field.

International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium / Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Inc. (IC&RC)

IC&RC is an international organization that provides resources, examinations, and credentials for substance abuse and/or addiction recovery professionals. It consists of over 50,000 professionals worldwide and is dedicated to protecting patients by establishing and maintaining standards of excellence in the field. All of the resources provided are research and evidence-based with an extensive peer-review process. Like NAADAC, IC&RC works exclusively with various state boards, which are independently operated but share the organizations standards and values. Candidates interested in IC&RC credentials must go through their specific state for consideration, but the following designations are available:

Alcohol & Drug Counselor (ADC)

Recognized as the gold standard for addiction-related credentials worldwide, over 20,000 professionals hold this title. This certification is intended for professionals who provide addiction services in a wide variety of settings.

Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor (AADC)

This advanced certification is intended for professionals who provide addiction services in a wide variety of settings and have a master’s degree or higher in a behavioral health field.

Clinical Supervisor (CS)

This certification is intended for experienced professionals who plan to teach, coach, mentor, and evaluate other substance abuse and addiction professionals.

Prevention Specialist (PS)

This certification is intended for professionals who ensure addiction programs remain true to their promise to encourage public safety and well-being.

Certified Criminal Justice Addictions Professional (CCJP)

This certification is intended for professionals who provide addiction counseling services to those within the criminal justice system. In addition to counseling skills, these professionals must demonstrate a clear understanding of the criminal justice systems and those within it.

Peer Recovery (PR)

This certification is intended for individuals with a personal history of addiction and/or mental illness who provide quality recovery support services.

The Movement Toward Inclusivity

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While titles still maintain significance, the substance abuse and addiction field as a whole has made moves toward inclusivity over the years. NAADAC, for example, was originally founded as the National Association of Alcoholism Counselors and Trainers (NAACT) in 1972. The organization changed its name in 1982 to the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) to unite professionals working to assist addiction patients. The name changed even more in 2001, when the NAADAC became the Association for Addiction Professionals. These alterations were made specifically to reflect the increasingly varied titles and positions held by substance abuse service professionals, including counselors, administrators, social workers, specialists, masters, and therapists.