The role of a substance abuse counselor is to help people overcome problems with drug or alcohol dependence.

A counselor works with individuals through the many stages of the recovery process who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Throughout the counseling process, counselors help clients develop coping mechanisms, replacing old behaviors with new, healthier ones. Additionally, they might help the client navigate the job hunting process or rebuild relationships with friends and family.

Adjusting to life after getting clean is a long, difficult journey—and a drug counselor—at any level—is there to make that transition much, much easier. Below, we’ll look at what it takes to become a certified substance abuse counselor in Washington, DC.

Job Description—Drug Counselor in Washington DC

Substance abuse counselors help clients who are suffering from drug and/or alcohol addiction, as well as other issues like gambling or eating disorders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, counselors work to develop recovery programs and a series of coping strategies aimed at helping patients avoid relapse.

In addition to treating the addicts themselves, counselors may also work with their support systems. In more serious instances, the counselor may refer a client to a psychiatrist or a medical professional. A look at some of the responsibilities you can expect as a counselor:

  • Lead screening interviews to find out the need for drug and alcohol treatment. During the initial interview, you’ll figure out whether a patient needs psychiatric care, group therapy, detox or some other health intervention.
  • Referrals to other health and social service channels
  • Counselors will work closely with patients, helping them make decisions about their care. Here, it’s imperative that the patient understand the pros and cons of each treatment option—i.e. in-patient vs. outpatient, what the detox process looks like, setting up a schedule that works for them, etc.
  • Help patients schedule appointments both for treatment and other responsibilities
  • Monitor clients and their involvement with treatment, connecting with other providers to address issues.
  • Follow up with clients to find out how treatment is working—addressing challenges and adjusting as needed.
  • Developing programs for individual clients from group therapy and individual counseling to preparing for real world challenges like getting back into the workforce.

Types of Licensure in DC

Unlike other states with three or four different types of drug counselor licensing rungs, in DC, candidates have but two options.

The first is, the CAC I—a certification that requires an associate’s degree at a minimum. The second, the CAC II, requires a bachelor’s degree.

Across the country, the median salary for drug and alcohol counselors tends to hover around $39,000 and, according to the BLS, a 22% rise in employment is predicted between 2014 and 2024. In Washington DC, counselors can expect to earn between $35,000 and $70,000 per year.

Counselors can expect to work for healthcare agencies, the government, or in treatment centers for those in recovery. That said, the NAADAC and other nationally recognized organizations offer supplemental advanced certifications for those who wish to earn more or pursue a more specialized field.

Educational Requirements

district-of-columbia3

The minimum educational requirements you’ll need to become a drug counselor in Washington, DC is an associate’s degree. After completing the educational requirement, individuals will need to complete a series board-approved coursework, plus 500 hours of practice under supervision, and receive a passing score on two separate exams (more on that later).

Still, some positions prefer that candidates have a master's degree in addition to the certification.

In any case, here is a look at the requirements for both the CAC I and CAC II.

CAC I Education Requirements

At the CAC I level, the candidate must have already completed an associate level degree in health, psychology, or human services. That said, the definition is fairly broad. Degrees in criminal justice, mental health, nursing, and health education are all considered acceptable entries in the drug counseling field.

And, as a point of reference, the state board has mentioned that this is not an exhaustive list--so if you're concerned about having the right prerequisites, check their website before enrolling in supplemental classes.

CAC I Candidates must complete three semester hours in the following disciplines:

  • Crisis management
  • Factors like culture or socioeconomics
  • Screening and diagnostics
  • Dual diagnoses
  • Professional identity
  • Rules, regulations and ethics of becoming a drug counselor
  • Family dynamics and human behavior
  • Interviewing, treatment, group dynamics, support groups, addiction models, the different stages of change
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Symptoms and signs of substance abuse

Classes taken outside of earning the degree may qualify as well. The only requirement is that coursework must be taken from an accredited college or university or any organization that works with the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors.

Prospective candidates will need to rack up 500 hours of working experience (supervised). During this training period, the students must complete work that relates to the required areas of study (social and cultural factors or the signs of substance abuse, for example). Additionally, the trainees will develop their counseling skills, as well as planning, research, and program development.

On top of all this, trainees must complete 40 hours working under supervision in each of the disciplines mentioned above. As the candidate earns their hours, they must work under direct supervision, as stated in section 17-8715 of DC’s municipal regulations.

17-8715 states that if an organization runs multiple facilities and cannot staff a supervisor where the trainee is practicing, someone needs to be available at all times. In these cases, the supervisor in charge needs to meet with the trainee once a week and be reachable via phone or online.

To earn the CAC I, graduates need to earn a passing score on the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors exam.

CAC II Education Requirements

At the CAC II level, the candidate will need to hold a bachelor's degree in health, social science, or human services.

Specific coursework is relatively similar to what you'd take to earn your CAC I. The difference is, you'll need that extra two years of college, plus nine credit hours (versus the three for CAC Is) in those areas such as recovery process, treatment, relapse prevention, group counseling, and preventing relapse.

The CAC II candidate must also complete three credit hours of individual counseling and group therapy, as well as research and putting together tailored treatment plans.

Additionally, the prospective counselor is required to earn 180 hours of supervised working experience. Those hours are divided up into modules of 10 hours—covering the following areas: intake, screening, treatment plans, orientation, counseling (group and individual), crisis management, patient education, fielding referrals, and coordination with other relevant professionals.

Finally, the CAC II candidate will need to earn a passing score on the NAADAC-NCC Level II examination.

Applying for Your DC License

Generally, prospective candidates will apply before completing all of the educational requirements outlined above. The applicants may include their NAADAC score along with their application if they've already passed the exam. If they have yet to take the test, approval will be delayed until the exam results are ready.

From there, applicants will receive the green light to take the jurisprudence exam. Candidates can download application materials from the DC Department of Health website, as well as a jurisprudence study guide to help them prepare.

Applicants will also need to provide their official transcripts, documentation of additional training, and any other related courses they’ve taken.

In addition to the documents mentioned above, applicants will need to produce a clean background check and are required to get their fingerprints scanned by an approved DC-based vendor. As a point of reference, the Department of Health has included a list of options on their official website.

Applicants must also complete a course form, detailing the relevant educational courses are taken, as well as their supervised experience at each level.

Applications will cost $240 initially and $85 for those who are taking the exam again.

The Renewal Process

district-of-columbia5

DC drug and alcohol counselors are asked to must take a minimum of 40 hours of continuing education credits every other year and must renew their license in that same time frame. Just like your credential requirements, you’ll need to obtain those continuing education hours from an accredited institution or an organization like the NAADAC.

Counselors looking for approved education providers can search through the NBCC directory for providers to find continuing credits that work for them.

Additional Information for Prospective DC Candidates

district-of-columbia6

There are several organizations for prospective counselors seeking more information about their chosen profession. All DC counselors must apply through the DC Department of Health, but other institutions can provide additional certifications and support to counselors looking to get ahead in their field.

DC Department of Health

DC Department of Health provides information about the certification process—from going over requirements to getting a sense of each step in the process. There, you’ll be able to review application requirements, download checklists, experience forms, and study guides.

The Association for Addiction Professionals

This organization was once known as the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) and offers a range of credentials within the drug and alcohol counseling field.

While DC-based counselors must obtain their CAC I or II, they may apply for additional certifications through the organization. The National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level 1, for example, requires candidates to have a state-issued license. They must also have completed 6,000 hours’ worth of experience or three years, whichever comes first.

The National Board for Certified Counselors

This organization offers a couple of different credentials the National Certified Counselor (NCC) and the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC). Those who wish to earn the MAC credential must first pass the requirements for their NCC.

As we mentioned above, you'll only need an associate's or a bachelor's degree to become a practicing counselor; these designations do require a master's level degree.

Final Thoughts

An addiction counselor stands to have a rewarding career that helps people achieve their goal of sobriety and stay clean for the long term. There are plenty of places for candidates to find work, too--think medical facilities, schools, rehab clinics, and private practices. While the earning potential might not be as flashy as other fields, counselors play a huge role in the lives of addicts and their families.

Your educational experience may open doors to a better job as well--at the associate's level it might not be so lucrative, but additional certifications or going for a master's degree may pay off in the long-term.

If you're considering this path, we think it wise to start your research by looking at the organizations listed in the section above.