If you already have an undergraduate degree in addictions counseling or other related field, consider going back to school and earning a Master’s in substance abuse counseling. You’ll expand your opportunities and help people with substance use disorders at a different level.

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Getting Started


If you want to make a difference in the lives of people with substance use disorders, obtaining a Master’s in substance abuse counseling will give you that ability. While people enter this field for various reasons, at the core is a desire to help others overcome the problems of their substance use disorder that are holding them back. Those seeking a Master’s in substance abuse counseling degree programs must possess certain qualities if they are to succeed, and these include compassion, empathy, good communication skills and acceptance. The latter requires being nonjudgmental when dealing with clients. If you possess these skills and qualities, you can help your clients tremendously. With a Master’s in substance abuse counseling degree, you can either work in a wide range of program fields or start your own practice. The latter option isn’t possible with just bachelor s degree.

A nation in the midst of an opiate epidemic is in desperate need of substance abuse counselors to help clients stop using drugs or alcohol and stay clean and sober. People with substance use disorders often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate when they suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other psychological issues. Reclaiming their lives is not easy, but they can do with the help of a dedicated substance abuse counselor. Most substance abuse counseling programs are accredited by The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). When looking into schools, make sure they hold CACREP accreditation.

What is a Master’s in Counseling?

Before you can obtain a masters, you must first get your high school diploma and then bachelor's degree. You can get a bachelor of science in alcohol and drug addiction and further your education from there. You could also choose a more general education path in social sciences. An online bachelor's degree could also be a great choilce. Counseling degrees will vary by school. Some of the areas of focus you may see include: drug and alcohol programs focus on alcohol and drug counseling, co occurring disorders, group counseling, case management, and human services. With a degree in addiction counseling students learn how to treat behavioral disorder and mental health concerns.

You can get an online substance abuse counseling degree. An online substance abuse counseling degree should provide you with the same level of education as an in person degree. This type of degree is perfect if you learn best online. You can also qualify for financial aid with an online degree.

A Master’s in substance abuse counseling enables recipients to work on a higher level with clients than those with only a bachelor's in substance abuse degree. The focus is on improving the client’s well-being and aiding them in making the choices to improve and turn around their lives. The work is hands-on, rather than academic or research related. While the clients of these counselors often have serious issues with substance abuse or may exhibit psychological problems, such clients typically do not include those diagnosed with serious mental illness. The latter is beyond the purview of an individual with a Master’s in Counseling degree.

Most master’s in substance abuse counseling can be completed within two years, although much depends on the individual program and whether students can attend school on a full or part-time basis. Most programs are based on 60 total credits along with several hundred hours of internships as work experience.

Before you can obtain a master’s in counseling, you must earn an undergraduate degree. While an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as psychology, is the most useful, there is no reason a student with an unrelated degree cannot enter a Master’s in Counseling program, although they may have to take some prerequisite undergraduate courses beforehand if they did not do so during their college career. Virtually all Master’s in Counseling programs contain a clinical component. The clinical element involves working one on one with clients under a supervisor, who must be a licensed substance abuse counselor.

Clinical training has a specific time component, the length of which is made clear in the degree programs. For those who have are still in college but know they want a career in substance abuse counseling, there are accelerated programs available in which the student can earn an undergraduate and master’s degree in five years. However, these programs are designed for full-time students and truly are “accelerated,” as the pace of learning is much faster than in a traditional program.

Students no longer have to obtain a master’s in counseling from a bricks-and-mortar university. For those needing the flexibility, online programs are available. When choosing a school, whether attending classes in person or online, make sure the institution has a relationship with a hospital or similar facility so that clinical training can take place.

Preparation for Admission


Before applying for a master’s in substance abuse counseling program, potential candidates should try to work or volunteer in a related field to gain practical experience. Getting into a program requires good grades, as well as a good score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Those with a GRE score of at least 1200 and a grade point average of at least 3.5 will have the best odds of acceptance. Most schools require a minimum of three letters of recommendation, and the candidate must send in official transcripts from the school in which they received their undergraduate degree. Along with completing the graduate application and paying applicable fees, most schools require the candidate to complete a statement of purpose or similarly worded document outlining their interests in the field and career goals.

Different Types of Master’s Degrees


Master’s degree are differentiated in various ways. For substance abuse counseling, candidates may seek a Master of Arts, which focuses on the theoretical aspects, or a Master’s of Science, in which technical aspects are paramount. There is also the Master’s of Education in substance abuse counseling, which is more general in nature than other master’s programs but allows graduates more flexibility in their career choices, especially if they are interested in working in the mental health or social service sector. The Master’s in substance abuse counseling psychology emphasizes patient diagnosis and treatment. Some of these programs require the completion of a thesis to receive a degree, while others do not.

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There is no one best type of master’s degree in substance abuse counseling that is better than others. It all depends on a candidate’s interests and career goals. For those who hold an undergraduate degree in the humanities, a Master of Arts may prove the best choice. The Master’s of Science degree may attract those with an undergraduate degree in a related field. Either program requires candidates to perform research and become familiar with the regulations in the discipline.

Coursework for the various master’s in substance abuse counseling degree programs includes ethics, assessment and evaluation, advanced addictions counseling techniques, research methods, psychopathology, multicultural counseling, human sexuality, group therapy and family systems.

Certification and Licensure for Counselors


The type of certification and licensure needed for mental health counselors depends on the particular career, as well as state requirements. Licensure often comes via the National Board of Certified Counselors, requiring the passing of a nationally recognized exam along with mandated total credits of work experience. No matter the state or career field, those seeking certification can expect the requirement to earn a degree from an accredited institution and complete a considerable number of credit hours under supervision. Typically, a state might credit a candidate with a master’s degree with one year of experience, with 2,000 credit hours of experience is generally considered the equivalent of one year. However, since state standards can vary considerably, this is not necessarily true of the state in which you are seeking certification and licensure but gives you a general idea of the criteria.

Titles for a licensed substance abuse counselor will vary by state. The most common titles include licensed professional counselor, licensed mental health counselor, licensed clinical professional substance abuse counselor and licensed professional clinical counselor. Some states may use their own terms, such as Master Addiction Counselor. For a national certification, for example, counselors must complete 3,000 hours in counseling, along with 100 supervised hours over two years post-graduation, as well as pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.

All candidates must pass a criminal background check, including fingerprinting.

Career Options as a Counselor

Those with a master’s in substance abuse counseling often work in private practice or in hospitals, but these are just a few of the career options available. While many people with a master’s in substance abuse counseling seek work in the addiction and mental health fields, mental health counselors may also work in schools, including colleges, or as marriage and family counselors, career counselors and rehabilitation counselors. Other institutions in which counselors may work include prisons, halfway houses, parole and probation departments, detoxification facilities, juvenile detention centers, inpatient residential centers and outpatient clinics. While a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry is necessary to treat patients with serious mental health issues, those with a master’s in addictions counseling may work with clients experiencing lifestyle and social issues.

Counselors can find the niche to which they are best suited in terms of a career and what they can offer clients. For some, the focus in on prevention and education, while others want to work with particular subsets of clients, such as adolescents, LGBT individuals, the incarcerated, alcoholics or the homeless. Counselors fluent in Spanish or other languages may want to work with people requiring counseling in these particular communities. Many counselors prefer to work in a general field where they can help people of all backgrounds.

Can I Use a Master’s in Counseling in the Addiction Field?

Addiction and substance abuse counselors help clients either individually or in group settings, and may also work with the families of clients. They help clients identify the issues, both behavioral and emotional, that led them to substance abuse and develop treatment and recovery plans best-suited to a client’s individual needs.

Depending on state law, those with a master’s in substance abuse counseling who go into the addiction field may need certification as chemical dependency counselor. Once this certification is achieved, the substance abuse counselor may work with people struggling with addiction issues, or possibly pharmacological therapy.

If you plan to go into addictions counseling in the addiction field, look for a school accredited by the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) and/or the International Coalition for Addiction Studies Education (INCASE).

Currently, 27 states as well as the District of Columbia have addition-specific licensure, but the other 23 states do not, according to NASAC. The American Counseling Association (ACA) would like the remaining states without such licensure to join the ACA under its licensure umbrella by 2020. ACA guidelines require a master’s degree from a CACREP accredited program. “This means that mental health counselors practicing in almost half of the states in the country will not be eligible for an addiction professional license unless they hold a master’s degree from a CACREP accredited master’s program,” according to NASAC. For those who do hold a CACREP accredited master’s degree, this change, if it occurs, will open up opportunities in those states coming under the ACA licensure umbrella.

Salary Information


The job outlook over the next decade for counselors is very good, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS states that employment in this field, consisting of substance abuse, mental health and substance abuse behavioral disorder counselors, is expected to grow by 23 percent by 2026, which is above average for occupations as a whole. The growth areas include counseling for military veterans and treatment for addicted offenders in lieu of jail time. As of 2017, the median pay for counselors was $43,300, but the highest 10 percent, who generally have master’s degrees, earned an average of $70,840. Those working in the government sector had the highest median pay, at $50,600, followed by hospitals, both public and private, at $47,000. Third were individual and family services counselors, at $42, 190, and fourth at just slightly lower salaries were outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, at $42,140. Counselors working for residential mental health and substance abuse facilities earned a median income of $37, 210. These numbers, however, do not accurately reflect the salaries of those with a master’s in substance abuse counseling, as those salaries are higher.

License Renewal and Continuing Education

How often a person with a master’s in substance abuse degree must renew their licenses depends on the state. In some states, annual renewal is required, although in most states licenses are renewed bi-annually or every three years. Along with renewal come continuing education requirements, of which the number of hours also depend on state regulations. Typically, 20 to 40 hours of continuing education is required. Many states mandate certain continuing education courses, such as ethics, and courses must relate to the practitioner’s field. Continuing education opportunities sponsored by licensed health care facilities and institutions qualify, as do courses available from accredited institutions of higher learning. While online learning is permitted, most states limit the number of online hours available for eligibility.

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