One of the most common problems in America today is substance abuse. In fact, research has shown that each year millions of Americans suffer from substance abuse. Substance abuse occurs, when a person uses a habit-forming or mind-altering substance like drugs or alcohol to feel better, cope with stress, or for other reasons that will eventually cause them more harm than good. By the time someone realizes this, they are already addicted to the substance both physically and mentally and, therefore, often require assistance to quit. That’s where a substance abuse counselor comes in.

Substance abuse counselors are not limited to helping those addicted to drugs and alcohol, they can also work with individuals struggling with other addictions such as behavioral problems, eating disorders, gambling, or sex addictions. It is their mission to help suffering addicts overcome their addiction by providing training, encouragement, support, and treatment to the individual and their loved ones who are also impacted.

Counselors will start by evaluating the mental and physical behaviors of the addicted person and then decide on an appropriate treatment and recovery plan, such as the 12-step program. If the problem is complex, severe, or life-threatening the counselor may call for help from other professionals such as social workers and psychiatrists. Treatment plans aimed towards recovery may include counseling the individual one-on-one and/or in group sessions.

Typically, counselors spend a lot of their time listening to patients who struggle with addiction while assessing their needs. In addition, a counselor may have to report a patient’s progress to local authorities or a judge if the legal system is involved, such as when the person’s drug treatment is mandatory. They may also regularly meet with previous clients who have overcome their addiction, to help them find a job and restart their new life, free of dependencies.

Professional counselors work in various clinical experience facilities such as halfway houses, outpatient clinics, inpatient rehabilitation centers, hospitals; some even have their own treatment clinics.

Many substance abuse counselors were once addicts themselves but have fully recovered and want to help others do the same, or they may have known someone who struggled with addiction or they just want to end substance abuse and make a difference.

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Associate Degree Programs


Depending on the state, you may have to choose a degree in social sciences with a concentration in medical knowledge, substance abuse counseling, or a related field to take on this profession.

Earning an associates degree in substance abuse counseling takes two years. Students will learn the fundamentals of career advice, therapeutic services, and counseling techniques. An associate’s degree is counted as being equivalent to a half year in the field, or 1000 hours of job experience by the "International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium"(IC&RC).

To qualify to enter one of these programs, you must have a high school diploma and a strong GPA. Moreover, because this is a competitive entry field; you should consider taking part in community involvement projects or extracurricular activities.

Sample Coursework

This associate’s degree program may include the following courses:

  • Psychology
  • Case Management
  • Counseling Theories
  • Communications
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Crisis Intervention
  • And more

Average Associate’s Degree Cost

The cost per year for an associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling ranges from $11,556 to $35,676 if you attend out-of-state, and from $8,636 to $35,676 in-state, with an average annual total cost of $18,924 or $37,848 for a complete two-year program.

Potential Jobs & Average Salary Expectations

After earning an associate’s degree in substance abuse you will find the doors open to many career opportunities, the following are just some of them with basic earnings for each occupation:

  • Substance Abuse counselor - $38,600
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant - $46,900
  • Peer support specialist - $31,200
  • Personal Support Worker - $33,300
  • Care Coordinator - $41,900

Bachelor’s Degree Programs


You can earn a bachelor of science in addiction counseling or a bachelor’s in the science of psychology degree with a concentration in substance abuse counseling in three to four years, covering 120 semester hours of credits. This program will cover human behavior, trends, the history of psychology, and more.

Students will gain knowledge of basic sociological and psychological elements that contribute to addiction while examining the numerous ways that chemical dependency can affect, not only the addicted individual, but their children and other family members as well.

In faith-focused institutions you will learn counseling theory, ethics, key concepts, and techniques in spirituality for treating addictions, and how to apply the Christian Worldview to your practice. In addition, you will have the ability to assist communities, families, and individuals with your applied skills and knowledge.

Sample Coursework

The Bachelor’s Degree program for a substance abuse counselor may include the following courses:

  • Personality Development
  • Substance Abuse Treatment and Prevention
  • Case Management
  • Psychology
  • History of Psychology
  • Introduction to Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • General Biology
  • Foundations of Substance Use and Addiction
  • Trauma, Addiction, and Substance Disorders
  • Theories of Counseling

Average Bachelor’s Degree Cost

The cost for a bachelor’s degree varies, depending on the institution you attend. According to the 2017-2018 “College Board’s Trends in College Pricing”, the average cost is roughly $9,970 annually for a four-year degree program at public, in-state institutions and $25,620 for out-of-state students.

Potential Jobs & Average Salary Expectations

With a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling, you will have plenty of options, as there are numerous job openings just waiting to be filled. The following are just some of the many employment opportunities available:

  • Health Educator - $44,400
  • Probation Officer - $41,300
  • Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor - $39,200
  • Addiction Counselor - $39,600
  • Case Manager, Social Services - $37,600

Note: you may also need to get a license for some of these professions in addition to earning a bachelor’s degree. Check your state for requirements to practice as a licensed counselor.

Master’s Degree Programs


After obtaining a bachelor’s degree you have the option to progress even further in your education and pursue a master’s. A master’s or doctoral degree is required in order for you to start your own private practice or teach college-level courses in psychology or counseling. To become a substance abuse counselor, you will need a master’s in psychology or social work.

You can also complete a certificate program in substance abuse counseling while you are completing your master’s or after you graduate.

The master’s degree program for substance abuse counseling will allow you to participate in field work since many counseling jobs require experience. It will also teach you various fundamentals of counseling, such as research methods, counseling approaches, and more. There are also courses that you can take to prepare you for the business aspects that go along with having your own practice.

Sample Coursework

  • Orientation to Addiction
  • Human Growth and Development
  • Building Your Ideal Private Practice
  • Psychopathology and Personality Disorders
  • Theories of Psychotherapy and Counseling
  • Group Dynamics
  • Social and Cultural Counseling Foundations

Average Master’s Degree Cost

The tuition for a master’s degree program at a public institution, in-state, can cost an average of $8,670 yearly and the tuition cost per year for a doctorate program is $10,830 at an in-state public institution.

Potential Jobs & Average Salary Expectations

Although you do not need a master’s to become a substance abuse counselor, it’s still a good thing to have, as it can potentially boost your earnings substantially. Here are just a few of the many opportunities this degree qualifies you for:

  • Psychologist - $74,600
  • School Career Counselor - $43,400
  • Rehabilitation Counselor - $43,600
  • Marriage & Family Therapist - $47,200
  • Clinical Social Worker - $53,500
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker - $56,100

Addiction/Substance Abuse Counselor Certification Programs

Community colleges, some universities, and schools that provide career training may offer certificates for substance abuse counseling programs that allow students to become licensed in specific areas.

There are two types of certificate programs that students can take advantage of: the first is a preparatory program that students can enroll in before starting the associate’s degree program, and the other offers students a way to solidify their expertise in a certain area after they earn their master’s degree in social work or in counseling.

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An exam administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) allows counselors to become certified and offers a giant leap toward becoming licensed in some states. You must take and pass an exam to meet nationally-recognized standards and become certified. The following are the requirements:

  • Must have attended an accredited college or university where you earned your master’s degree in counseling or a related field.
  • Have around 3,000 hours of experience in counseling, two years after receiving your master’s, unless you completed CACREP accredited tracks. 100 of those hours must have been supervised by an already certified professional.
  • Get a passing score on the exam

Sample Coursework

Coursework for certification may include:

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Theories of Personality
  • Foundations of Addictions
  • Counseling Foundation

Average Certification’s Cost

The average cost for a substance abuse counseling certificate is approximately $4,000, which is part of what makes these programs so attractive to students pursuing a career in this field. The other point of interest is that it takes much less time to complete a certificate program than it does to a degree.

Potential Jobs & Average Salary Expectations

  • Health Educators - $44,400
  • Community Health Workers - $35,600
  • Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselor - $37,900
  • Home Health Aide - $23,300
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant - $30,800

What are the Prerequisites?

Every employer looks to hire people who are fit for the job and know what they are doing. When choosing which individual to hire from a list, an employer will usually choose the one with the most experience behind them first, and the second contributing factor is educational background.

What makes the substance abuse counselor’s job unique, is that a person may be able to jump right into this profession without a degree. In fact, all that is required is experience dealing with substance abuse and a high school diploma to land a job in this field. This is why many recovered addicts become counselors, they have what is called "valuable knowledge" since they have been through it and can use their own experiences to assist others to do the same. Some qualifications may include:

  • Experience dealing with substance abuse
  • Must have been sober and clean for at least 2 years
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Be at least 18 years or older

What are the Specializations for Addiction Counseling?


A substance abuse counselor is basically a mental health professional who has been trained to assist those struggling with addiction. Their primary goal is to guide these individuals and their loved ones — who are also impacted — down a path to recovery and then help them establish a better lifestyle that is healthy and drug-free. To do this a counselor may use the following special tools and techniques:

  • Therapy sessions
  • Work with friends & family
  • Listen carefully and understand the patient
  • Set boundaries
  • Clearly state the action plans that will lead to full recovery if followed

What is the Career Outlook According to BLS?


After you complete your degree in substance use or another related field, you are on your way to becoming a substance abuse counselor. Substance abuse counselor jobs come in a wide variety. Substance abuse counselors work in many different areas of the behavioral health industry. Part of being a drug counselor is gaining work experience with people that have mental illness, as drug abuse and mental illness are generally seen together. As part of your work experience, you will be developing and providing hours of supervised treatment plans.

Choosing a career as a substance abuse counselor is a very wise choice, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the growth projections in this field will increase rapidly. The average growth rate of employment in all areas is 11%, while job openings for substance abuse counselors have increased by 22%. Of all the professions listed in the U.S. Occupational Outlook Handbook, that projected growth increase is among the highest.

In 2012, The U.S. had 89,600 addiction counselor employees. The government expects that by 2022 that number will rise to 117,700, indicating from 2012 through 2022 there will be another 28,200 new employment opportunities and by 2026 job growth is estimated to reach 23% in this field.

One reason for such an extensive growth projection is because mental health issues are now covered by the Affordable Care Act, which means addicted individuals' healthcare plans will pay for them to get help, which was not previously covered.

The penal system is another key factor in the high projected growth rate. Due to the continuing trends of prisons experiencing overcrowding, drug abuse offenders are now being ordered to attend and complete drug rehabilitation programs instead of serving jail time.

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