Are you considering a career as a chemical dependency counselor? If you’re are interested in helping people who suffer from drug dependency work through and overcome their addictions, this may be an ideal career choice. Entering this field offers many benefits, including good pay, sustained job security, and the opportunity to meaningfully impact the overall health of others.
What Does a Chemical Dependency Counselor Do?
Chemical dependency counselors, sometimes referred to as addiction counselors, serve as lifelines for individuals suffering from substance dependencies on alcohol, narcotics, prescription medications, and other drugs. They cannot prescribe medications or necessarily provide therapy, but they do advocate for their patients and provide mentorship.
Using a variety of skills, they help clients manage the physical and psychological difficulties that often accompany addictions, such as withdrawal symptoms and behavioral issues. Their responsibilities are numerous and varied, ranging from providing education and emotional support to referring patients for job placement services. While every situation is different, and each counselor-client relationship unique, some of the most common responsibilities include:
- Evaluating clients and assessing readiness for treatment
- Developing and reviewing treatment plans and goals
- Assisting in skills and behaviors development
- Helping clients identify behaviors and/or situations that interfere with recovery
- Educating client family members about addiction
- Working with family members to develop coping strategies
- Referring clients to other resources and services
- Conducting outreach programs to identify addiction
Because some people refuse to recognize chemical dependency as a medical condition, these professionals are also often responsible for stopping the spread of misinformation and combating stigmas commonly associated with the disease.
Who Do They Work With?
Because anyone can be impacted by addiction, a licensed chemical dependency counselor will work with a wide variety of demographics, from teenagers and adults to veterans and people with disabilities. In some cases, clients must receive treatment due to court orders, while others seek assistance of their own accord. It’s possible for these professionals to specialize in work with specific population types but many will see anyone struggling with a chemical dependency.
Additionally, these professionals often meet with the family members of patients, either individually or in group sessions. This may be to provide information about addiction or to help establish strategies that will help them cope with the diagnosis of a loved one. In some cases, family and friends can play a significant role in the treatment and recovery process. It’s important to note, however, that involving others is only ever done with the express permission of the client.
A licensed chemical dependency counselor is also likely to work with other healthcare and mental health professionals. Depending on the situation, they may need to coordinate with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, and/or registered nurses to develop and manage treatment plans.
Why Do We Need Chemical Dependency Counselors?
Chemical dependency is a common, chronic disease that can affect anyone. According to data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2019, there were 20.4 million people aged 12 and older with a substance use disorder in the United States. As a result, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that the use and misuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs costs the nation billions of dollars in annual expenses related to crime, lost work productivity, and healthcare. A licensed chemical dependency counselor can play significant roles in decreasing the number of substance use disorders and limiting the societal impact of addiction.
Substance abuse counselors become key figures in the lives of addicts. The road to recovery is often extremely difficult, but having a positive influence can make a huge difference. By providing careful guidance and support, their work can result in radical shifts in consciousness that empower patients to make better and more productive life decisions. They are often instrumental in helping addicts regain employment and reconcile with family members.
Family members and friends of addicts often benefit a lot from the work of chemical dependency counseling. Relationships with substance abusers can be very emotional and even traumatic. In many cases, counselors are able to provide a better understanding of the situation that allows those involved to become part of the healing process.
These professionals also have a significant impact on the community in which they work. This is seen in many ways, from safer roads to decreased crime rates. Their presence also tends to limit the number of substance-related hospitalizations and domestic violence cases. In general, chemical dependency counseling can make areas safer for everyone because chemical dependency counseling actively helps those with addictions heal.
What Issues Might Chemical Dependency Counselors Deal With?
Chemical dependency counseling deals with a number of potentially difficult and/or delicate situations on a daily basis. Because patients come from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, these professionals must become comfortable discussing things like trauma, behavioral issues, physical illnesses, and other disorders in conjunction with substance abuse.
Trauma is often associated with addiction. Children and adults can both experience traumatic events or circumstances which may profoundly impacted their mental, emotional, physical, social, and/or spiritual health. Left unaddressed, these can lead to substance use and abuse.
Some of the most common traumas experienced by addicts include:
- Physical Assault
- Sexual Assault
- Domestic Violence
- Emotional or Verbal Abuse
- Parental Neglect
- Bullying or Ongoing Harassment
- Natural Disasters
- Terminal Illness
Behavioral issues are also common among those with substance abuse disorders. This may be due to trauma or could be a result of other mental health conditions.
People that want to work in chemical dependency counseling need to be familiar with and comfortable dealing with the following:
- Lack of Motivation
- Poor Grades
- Unsafe Sexual Activity
It’s important for someone working in chemical dependency counseling to recognize that many addicts have or may develop co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis. Any combination of mental health disorders and substance abuse or addiction qualifies for this diagnosis. Because both conditions must be addressed simultaneously, determining an appropriate treatment plan is essential.
Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Bipolar Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Eating Disorders
- Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Additionally, those with substance use disorders are often diagnosed with chronic physical health conditions. These include chronic pain, cancer, liver disease, heart disease, and various infectious diseases. The misuse and abuse of potentially dangerous chemicals can cause significant and lasting damage to the body, especially after long periods of time. Moreover, some of the behavioral issues mentioned above can lead to an increased risk of infection disease transmission, including HIV and hepatitis C. These diagnoses will impact counseling services and treatment.
How to Become a Chemical Dependency Counselor
Most people pursuing a career as a chemical dependency counselor will need, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology, sociology, clinical social work, behavioral science, or mental health counseling. While it may be possible to secure some entry-level positions with an associate's degree in addiction counseling, this level of education does not adequately prepare students to attain full counseling licensure. An associate's degree in behavioral science degrees may be helpful for those prepping for an undergraduate program.
Most bachelor’s degree programs consist of 120 credit hours of supervised education of coursework and take full-time students approximately four years to complete. Those who plan to attend classes in a part-time capacity should expect graduation to be delayed for two to four years. Every college and university is different, but topics covered frequently include:
- Family Counseling
- Social Research Methods
- State and Local Government
Regulations vary by state, so it’s important to research specific counselor requirements before enrolling in a program.
While most employers require people working in chemical dependency counseling to have bachelor’s degrees for entry-level positions, many give preference to candidates with master’s degrees during the hiring process. As a result, earning one can provide you with a competitive edge over other applicants. Additionally, those with undergraduate degrees may be limited in their ability to practice. A graduate behavioral science degree in psychology, sociology, clinical social work, or mental health counseling is needed in order to provide certain services to clients, such as one-on-one counseling sessions. Higher educated counselors also require less supervision from employers.
Qualifying master’s degree programs usually consist of 60 credit hours of supervised education of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete. Those attending classes part-time should anticipate graduating within three to four years. Every college and university is different, but topics covered frequently include:
- Testing and Assessment
- Case Management
- Addiction Prevention and Intervention
Regulations vary by state, so it’s important to research specific counselor requirements before enrolling in a program.
A doctoral degree in behavioral science is not required to practice as a licensed chemical dependency counselor but earning one can still be beneficial. These programs are ideal for licensed professionals with significant work experience in addiction. Those interested in holding positions of leadership, performing substance abuse research, and/or teaching at the postsecondary level are best served by this type of behavioral science degree.
Most programs provide a more comprehensive assessment of the social and cultural causes behind addiction. They usually consist of between 90 and 120 credit hours of supervised education and take five to seven years to complete. Every institution is different and curriculum is often based on student interest, but some common classes might include:
- Epidemiology of Drug and Substance Abuse
- History of Addiction and Human Behavior
- Prevention of Chemical Abuse in Childhood
- Group Psychotherapy Techniques and Treatment Methods
In addition to earning a degree in a relevant field, all 50 states require that substance abuse treatment counselors who want to have a private practice be licensed. The licensing process is multifaceted and educational requirements vary by location, but all candidates must have between 2,000 hours and 4,000 hours of of supervised professional experience. This may include a specified number of hours observing or shadowing a licensed psychologist and/or a certain number of hours of supervised work under a licensed psychologist. All work experience educational requirements must be met and proof of completion must be provided prior to sitting for any licensure examination.
It’s important to research specific state educational requirements before pursuing employment to ensure the environment supports the type of experience needed. In most cases, work must be overseen by a licensed professional in order for the hours of supervised education to count.
While not required, it’s common for individuals who have overcome their own addictions to become involved in counseling others with substance abuse problems. Professionals with personal experience overcoming the conditions are considered particularly helpful in the field, as their insight can often improve the treatment of others.
As mentioned above, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require chemical dependency counselors in private practice to be licensed. Every licensing board works in conjunction with the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), but states are responsible for overseeing the application process in accordance with local law and determining the requirements for candidates to sit for examination. NBCC is then charged with enforcing the preset regulations when registering applicants and administering the tests.
While specific requirements will vary by location, most have requirements similar to the following:
- Master’s degree with a major study in counseling from a regionally accredited program
- Coursework in specific content areas including, but not limited to:
- Human Growth and Development Theories in Counseling
- Social and Cultural Foundations in Counseling
- Assessment in Counseling
- Career Counseling and Lifestyle Development
- Group Counseling Theories and Processes
- Hours of postgraduate counseling supervision over a specified period of time
- Endorsement from a professional colleague who holds a master’s degree or higher in a mental health field
- Hours of postgraduate counseling experience over a specified period of time
- Passing score on the state-issued examination
It’s important for those seeking licensure to contact their individual state licensure board. Contact information for each board can be found on the NBCC website.
Additionally, licensure criteria for substance abuse counselors outside of private practice vary from state to state. Not all states require applicants to have a specific degree, but many require passing a board-issued examination.
Substance abuse treatment counselors in private practice must pass a state-issued examination before becoming licensed. Every state’s licensure application processes varies, with some specifically requiring the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and other requiring the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). In some cases, professionals will be expected to take both or may choose which one they prefer.
The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers the licensure examinations for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Examinations are administered by appointment only, Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on authorized dates. Two forms of identification will be needed, one including a picture, in order to be admitted to the testing location.
States with computer-based testing send unofficial score reports immediately after the exam is completed.
It’s also important to know that substance abuse counselors outside of private practice may have different testing requirements. While some states do not require a specific degree, most do require applicants pass an examination.
Where Do Chemical Dependency Counselors Work?
Substance abuse treatment counselors can work in a wide variety of settings.
Some of the most common places of employment include:
- Mental Health Centers
- Probation Agencies
- Parole Agencies
- Juvenile Detention Facilities
- Private Practices
- Halfway Houses
- Detox Centers
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Residential Treatment Facilities
- Outpatient Treatment Centers
While there are numerous options available, the majority of substance abuse counselors find work in outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers. As an alternative to inpatient and residential treatment, these facilities are designed for people with substance use disorders or co-occurring mental and substance use disorders who do not require medical detoxification or supervision. Their primary goal is to establish psychosocial supports and facilitate relapse management and coping strategies.
After outpatient centers, the largest employers for substance abuse treatment counselors were:
- Individual and Family Services
- State, Local, and Private Hospitals
- Residential Substance Abuse Facilities
While this work can be extremely rewarding, substance abuse counseling jobs are also known to be stressful. These professionals often juggle large workloads and do not always have the necessary resources to meet demands. Interacting with agitated patients can also be challenging. Additionally, they may also have to be on call and available for crisis interventions. It’s not uncommon for people working in chemical dependency counseling to work evenings, nights, and weekends.
According to PayScale, the average salary for a person in chemical dependency counseling is $39,986. This figure is just above the median annual wage of $37,690 reported for all occupations through the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Entry-level professionals can expect to make between $14.99 and $15.84 per hour, while those with 20 or more years of experience can earn as much as $20.35 per hour. The highest 10% of individuals in the field earn more than $76,080 annually.
Some employers pay more than others. While opportunities are limited within the industry, the government offered the highest average annual wages for substance abuse counselors in 2019. Other top paying industries include hospitals, individual and family services, and outpatient substance abuse centers. Residential substance abuse facilities offered the lowest salaries.
Overall, the outlook for chemical dependency counselors working in the United States is promising. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the profession is expected to grow by 25% from 2019 to 2029. This is much faster than the national average for other professions. This anticipated growth is mostly due to the fact that people will continue to seek addiction counseling services.
There are a few other key factors impacting this projected growth. First, more and more states are opting for treatment and counseling services as an alternative to jail time. This is because addicts are less likely to repeat criminal behaviors when they receive treatment for their substance abuse. As the number of sentences requiring admittance into counseling programs increases, the more chemical dependency counselors will be needed. Another reason for growth is the continued need for mental health professionals to work with military veterans struggling with addiction. And, with the opioid crisis still going, we will continue to need these professionals for the foreseeable future.