Many who enter the counseling field are led by a desire to help others figure out their lives and move towards a better life. They may be motivated by personal history, or simply an altruistic desire to do good for others. If you are following such a calling, you may discover that you wish to specialize with a specific population.

There are many different areas of specialty that you can choose from. However, there are few more rewarding than substance abuse counseling. This field encompasses so many issues that you will never run out of interesting avenues to explore. Addicts frequently have deep-seated family issues, have experienced disturbing traumas, and have peculiar mental twists that prompt them to act on irrational impulses.


Counselors who carry a substance abuse specialty can work in a variety of settings and see a wide range of clients. The challenges are never-ending, but so are the rewards you′ll reap. Helping others overcome the tremendous difficulties involved in addiction offers boundless reward.

Work Setting

Many counselors work in an office setting. They frequently team up with other counselors and form practice groups. As a member of a group, you′ll share resources such as administrative help, office equipment, and the physical space. However, you′ll be in charge of your own practice. You will have complete autonomy in the patients you see and the hours you keep.

If you work in such a setting, you might want to dedicate time to outside projects. That is, you might work a day or two in a prison setting, facilitating group sessions with incarcerated addicts. You could also spend time working in a drug rehab setting, giving preventative talks to teens, or conducting DUI courses for those facing legal issues.

As a substance abuse counselor, you might find that you′d like to spend time working in drug rehabilitation centers. This choice can lead to a wide range of work environments. Some drug rehabilitation centers are located deep in the forest and offer a wilderness experience to help addicts find themselves through an interaction with nature. Others might be located on sailing vessels, so you will need to learn how to work on a ship. Still others are in a more traditional, clinical hospital setting. Nonetheless, your life as an addictions specialist will never be boring and can offer so many personal adventures.

Types of Clients

Some substance abuse counselors work with attorneys whose clients need pre-trial assistance. In this work, you might counsel individuals regarding their personal addiction issues, but help keep them on track with 12-step meetings, community service, and any tasks they need to complete for the judge. Doing work like this may give you more insight into the practical realities of an addict′s life.

You will also gain deep insights into the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of addiction. It impacts people of every age, gender, class, and ethnicity. While the common perception may be that addicts are homeless, destitute criminals, the reality is far more complicated. You will be able to help doctors, lawyers, CEOs, as well as teenagers who made a bad choice. You may also find that those raised in a country-club lifestyle still incur traumas that lead to heroin just as those born into deep poverty.

Since the life of an addict is rarely rosy, you will find that your clients have incurred deep traumas while using. Unfortunately, women addicts are often the victim of physical abuse that usually included sexual trauma. Even those who consented to certain situations may sober up and feel deep shame. In fact, this cycle of drug abuse, shame, and further bad choices may be part of the work you do with them.

What You′ll Treat

On the surface, it may seem like you′ll be working primarily with drug addicts and alcoholics. In fact, many dedicate their careers to just these populations. However, there are many other sorts of addiction that you might treat. In fact, you will soon find that many who come to you with typical substance abuse issues have complicated matters with other addictions and obsessions. Here is a brief list of the sorts of issues you might address in your practice:

Eating Disorders:

People who suffer from an eating disorder are also having trouble with amphetamines do help curb their appetite. The shame they feel regarding their bodies is medicated, in part, with the drugs, which bring their own complicating issues.


Addicts are very impulsive people and gambling is common for those who are seeking the next big rush. It′s been shown that the same neurotransmitters released by cocaine are released when a person wins a lot of money. This issue also impacts people in professions such as equities trading and sales. The boom/bust cycles closely mirror the high/crash cycles of pure drug abuse.

Sex Addiction:

Impulsive sexual behavior is often found among addicts. They find the same sort of high in a high-risk sexual encounter that many find in drugs. When you add drugs to the mix, an endless cycle of obsession ensues.

What You′ll Do

Your actual duties can be as varied and interesting as you′d like. Your professional life might include any number of the following:

Eating Disorders:

People who suffer from an eating disorder are also having trouble with amphetamines do help curb their appetite. The shame they feel regarding their bodies is medicated, in part, with the drugs, which bring their own complicating issues.

Group Counseling:

You′ll facilitate small groups as they work to help one another through their issues with addiction.

Individual Counseling:

You′ll work one-on-one with individuals in a typical counseling environment.


You might conduct classes related to how drugs work on our bodies from a scientific point-of-view. You might also teach recovering addicts about relapse and how to avoid falling into that all-too-common trap.

Experiential Therapies:

Some addictions specialists conduct non-traditional therapies to help tackle addiction. These might include equine therapy, wilderness experiences, or yoga.

Master’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling Explained


A master’s degree in Substance Abuse Counseling is a specialized counseling degree that will prepare you for a career in the field of addictions counseling. During your training, you′ll be immersed in a curriculum that focuses on addictions counseling. Your coursework may include, but will not be limited to courses such as:

  • Assessment Techniques
  • Biological Aspects of Addiction and Recovery
  • Treatment and Recovery Processes
  • Grief, Stress, and Trauma

Alongside your coursework, you might want to hold a job or internship position that allows you to gain experience in your field. If you plan to seek licensure, you will probably need to log a large number of such hours prior to receiving credentials from your state.

Ideal Candidate

Substance abuse counselors come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. There is no one stereotype that can describe them all. However, if you are a compassionate, passionate, driven individual you will probably do well. There are a few other criteria you may wish to consider:


Can you be objective when clients describe situations involving horrible trauma? They may not only have been victims, but perpetrators, too. As a counselor, it is your duty to remain objective and help your client work through the shame and guilt they′ve accrued as an addict.


This is difficult work. You will encounter situations that will ask a lot of you on a personal, emotional level. It will be vital to maintain a professional distance. An ideal addictions counselor must be able to both care and not become personally invested.


While not necessary, many addictions counselors are former addicts themselves. On the other hand, many are not but are driven to help after witnessing the struggles of a friend of family member. Still others may seek the pure challenge of this cunning, baffling disease. There is no ideal background for an addictions counselor, but it will be helpful to discover your true driving motivation for the field.

Substance abuse counselors need a great deal of personal and intellectual fortitude. Very frequently, addicts are highly manipulative people that will seek to gain control over their situation. As a counselor you will be trained to look out for such behaviors, but it is important to ask yourself if you are ready to handle such situations.

Career Outlook


If this is the field for you, there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a much faster than average rate of growth in this employment sector. Their research shows that your field will see a 23% growth rate in the years between 2016 and 2026. If you care about people, the labor market will reciprocate.

Salary Expectations

Salaries for substance abuse counselors are rather good for those in the social services sector. In 2017, the median pay rate was $43,300. The highest 10 percent of practitioners have earned as much as $70,840. On the other end of the scale, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,310.

School Curriculum

Along the way to your master’s degree, you′ll take lots of challenging courses to help you become the best counselor you can be. The courses you′ll take include, but are not limited to:

  • Group therapy techniques
  • Drug and alcohol abuse treatments
  • Assessing the addict
  • Family counseling and drug rehabilitation
  • Contemporary issues in drug abuse rehabilitation
  • Substance abuse prevention
  • Relapse mediation
  • Individual counseling techniques

Choosing the Right Program

The first step to becoming an addictions counselor is achieving a master’s degree. That means you will need to discover and enroll in the right program for you. Keep in mind that while most programs will share certain things in common, they are also likely to be vastly different from each other. Consider these points as you research the right substance abuse program for you:

  • Faculty – Are faculty members accessible? What is their experience or are they professional academics with little practical experience? What does that mean to you?
  • Autonomy – Will you be able to create your own course of study? Is that what you want?
  • Diversity – Does the faculty and staff adequately represent the population you wish to serve? Does it represent the population as a whole?
  • Location – is the program located in a state that you would like to work in? This is vital, as each state has its own requirements for counselors and programs cater to those standards.



Before you take the final plunge and enroll in a program, make certain that it is fully accredited. If you graduate from a non-accredited program, you will likely need to re-take some or all of the courses if you desire licensure. Make sure that your program is certified by the Counsel for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. The CACREP′s website maintains a database of accredited programs that will help you find the best degree and certification program.