What is a Substance Abuse, Addiction Counselor?

The decision to become a substance abuse addiction counselor is not one to take lightly. This is a career that asks a lot of a person. It's more of a calling than a career, a passion than a job. You will be in a position to help many, many people through a very difficult time in their lives.

Not only will you be able to help the addict themself, but your impact will be quite far-reaching. That's because the addict is often a whirling mass of chaos who runs rampant through the lives of his family, friends, and community. In fact, it's difficult to find a single person who has not been impacted by the disease of alcohol and drug addiction. The ever-expanding opioid crisis is spreading the problem in ways no one could have predicted.

If you wish to work in mental health substance abuse on the front lines of a national crisis, you will need to take the proper steps towards that goal. This page is here to help. Continue reading to learn the steps you need to take to become a substance abuse addictions counselor.

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Is This for Me?

The first step is to determine whether becoming a substance abuse counselor is truly for you. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become a a substance abuse addictions counselor, substance abuse counselors must be certain before taking the first step. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself before becoming a substance abuse counselor:

  • What is my true motivation behind becoming an addictions counselor?
  • Do I have patience and tolerance for addicts?
  • Can I remain neutral even when an addict reveals terrible things about their using days?
  • Am I able to maintain objectivity enforce harsh penalties if an addict breaks the rules of a rehab facility?
  • What is my personal history with addiction? Do I need to heal any old wounds?
  • Do I enjoy helping others?

What Sort of Person Becomes an Addictions Counselor?


Addiction mental health counselors are a diverse group. As you begin to practice, you'll see that this diversity is a great strength in the field. That's because substance use addicts are likewise diverse. There is not one single set of characteristics that will fit every substance abuse sufferer. Therefore, in order to connect with an addict, there needs to be a counselor that they can relate to. Your unique story and approach will surely be a great benefit to an addict and his family.

While many addicts appreciate counselors who have been through the wringer of substance abuse, a lack of a alcohol and drug addiction shouldn't hold you back from pursuing the profession. In fact, you can bring a more objective view to the table. This can be of great help in a clinical setting, where a rehab center wants to have a diversified staff.


Traits of an Addictions Counselor

While there is no set personality that you must have, successful counselors have traits that include, but are not limited to:

  • Patience
  • Compassion
  • Tolerance
  • Spirituality
  • A logical disposition
  • An emotional approach
  • Objectivity
  • Open-mindedness

While diversity is something of a rule in this field, alcohol and drug addiction counselors need to be dedicated to helping people with substance abuse find a solution to a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. This condition frequently involves relapse and it is nobody's fault when this happens. Neither modern science nor ancient wisdom traditions have discovered a silver-bullet solution that works for everybody after a single treatment. Therefore, you will need to have patience not only with your clients, but with yourself and with the entire process of getting sober.

Work Environment


The first place you might imagine yourself working in substance abuse in a drug abuse rehab center. However, it's important to know that there are as many different types of rehabs as there are substance use addicts and substance use counselors. Where you work will sometimes depend on your outside abilities, interests, and talents as much as your knowledge of and dedication to the field.

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Some mental health rehabilitation centers, for instance, have a specific religious focus. If you are not a member of a particular religious faith, you will probably not be a great fit to work in one of those centers. However, if you are as dedicated to your faith as you are to helping addicts find solutions to their problems then a religiously oriented rehab might be a perfect fit that can broaden and deepen your faith.

There are some mental health rehabilitation programs that are oriented towards some outdoors activity. If you are an avid outdoors-person, you could spend much of your working time hiking with substance use addicts, helping them to overcome personal internal and external challenges. Other experience-based rehabs might seek counselors who have sailing experience. When addicts are asked to help crew a sailing vessel they immediately see how their actions help benefit a community.

Apart from rehabilitation centers, you can do many other types of substance abuse work. Some counselors work with drug abuse in private practice. They may have an office that is painted in neutral colors, decorated with a few ferns where clients come to discuss their struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. You might contract with your state's corrections facilities and conduct therapies in a prison setting.

You could also work in a more educational capacity, instructing those charged with DUI on the dangers of drinking and drugs. Even in a clinical setting, you might teach classes on the physiology of alcohol and drug addiction or the dangers of relapse.

Still other substance abuse counselors work to heal families. They help the family unit recover from the devastation addiction can bring. This might involve couples therapy or you could have multi-generational sessions that could even include addiction issues at all levels.

Academics: The First Step


Once you have decided that work as a substance abuse addictions counselor is for you, you will need to begin a course of formal study. While your state will have specific requirements, most states follow a predictable pattern in their education requirements. Please consult with your academic advisers and with your state's professional regulatory boards to ensure that your work will help support your goals.


Before you start writing checks for counseling programs, make sure that your school counseling degrees are accredited or will otherwise be recognized by your state's licensure board. If you state accepts non-accredited schooling, consider whether you will want to stay in that state for the duration of your career. A regionally accredited education will serve you well if you ever decide to move out of state.

Academic Credentials

Many states allow you to work in the mental health field or other related field with as little as an associate’s degree programs. However, some don't necessarily require a degree program in counseling at all, but you will need to have put in approximately 270 hours of course-time studying substance abuse counseling. These states allow you to study in a private, non-accredited careers college. During your classroom time, you will need to study subjects such as:

  • Interviewing
  • Differential diagnosis
  • Physiology of addiction
  • Biosocial assessment
  • Diagnostic summaries
  • Compulsive Gambling
  • Community resources
  • Case management
  • HIV resources
  • Hepatitis resources
  • Human Development
  • Pharmacology
  • Group therapy
  • Lifestyle and career development

Consider starting your social work mental health substance abuse career related field with an associate's or bachelor's degree in counseling but make a graduate degree your ultimate goal. If you practice your profession for a few years with a bachelor's degree, you can gain loads of insight and work experience. This experience will pay off when you enter graduate school for a master's degree. Further, according to the bureau of labor statistics, once you earn a master's degree, you can likely fetch a higher salary than your non-experienced peers.



Prior to receiving your license in substance abuse, most states require that you take and pass a standardized examination. This exam will ensure the state that you have the academic knowledge required to help addicts recover. The written exam is most often overseen by the NAADAC, a national association for addiction studies professionals.


After your academic work in substance abuse and mental health, one of the biggest hurdles to full licensure is the experience requirement. Your state will likely require some mix of supervised time in which you will work closely with a mentor on specific aspects of the field. For instance, you may need to satisfactorily perform patient intakes, diagnostics, and mental health counseling.

Your supervisor should be licensed and in good standing with the state so that she can sign-off on your work. Your college or university may be helpful in providing recommendations. You may also find that there are rehabilitation facilities that are eager to help nurture newcomers to the profession.

On top of your supervised time, you will need to log approximately 1,500 hours while you work under a conditional credential. This requirement will vary from state to state, and you may have up to five years in which to complete this portion. During your pre-licensure time you may be required to attend 12-step meetings, as well. Some states ask that you attend 30 or more meetings distributed among the following fellowships:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • Al-Anon
  • Cocaine Anonymous
  • Gamblers Anonymous

Continuing Education

To maintain your substance abuse social work license, your state will require that you take continuing education units every year. This requirement might change depending on your level of education. Those with a graduate degree may be asked to log fewer hours than those with undergraduate educations.

Your state will have its own standards for CEU providers, but often you can take courses through a national association, such as NAADAC, or you could take courses through your local college or university. There may even be weekend seminars and workshops you can attend that will provide you with a valid certificate that you can log towards your yearly requirement. Most often, you will need to augment your CEUs with ethics instruction.

A Rich and Rewarding Career

Congratulations on your decision to become a substance abuse social work counselor. This counselor career is in high demand, and you are bound to have a long and rewarding career as a result. Again, please consult with your academic advisers or your state board to ensure that you fulfill your state's specific requirements for licensure.

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