As the national substance abuse epidemic continues to explode, our society relies on substance abuse counselors to offer therapy and guidance to those suffering in the throes of addiction.

Substance use disorder (as it’s called in the DSM 5) affects millions of Americans every year. Most suffer from alcohol dependence and others deal with drug addiction; many people are battling both.

Substance abuse counselors play an increasingly important role in maintaining the health of our general population. For those seeking a rewarding career that requires empathy, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling might be the right place to start.

Here’s what you can expect from your bachelor’s degree in substance use counseling, starting from the very first steps down the career path.

Overview

A substance abuse counselor is a mental health professional who is trained to help people struggling with addiction. Their primary responsibility is to offer guidance and support to these individuals and their families through the process of establishing a healthy lifestyle and building sober habits.

Therapeutic tools

Substance abuse counselors use a number of therapeutic tools to work toward the goal of sobriety. They will often work with patients through mental health issues like depression, anxiety, grief, suicidal tendencies, and trauma. They can provide valuable support while working on the underlying issues beyond substance use.

Different types of therapy

Counselors may work with patients on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting, depending on the work needed and clinical appropriateness. The goal of counseling is typically to identify the life situations that hinder recovery, and to break down the root of the addiction. Harmful behaviors and environments may be pinpointed to reduce the risk of relapse. Counselors often provide support as sometimes drastic lifestyle changes are made and may help clients with steps like finding a job and securing safe housing.

Work with the family

Substance abuse counselors may also do a great deal of work with the families of their clients. Family work is a major part of therapy for many people dealing with addiction, and counselors can help to create an open and honest line of communication. Oftentimes, addiction builds walls and breaks down interpersonal relationships. Substance abuse counselors work with patients and their families to knock down the barriers and build new bridges.

Ideal Candidate for a Career in Substance Abuse Counseling

online-bachelors2

A career in substance abuse counseling isn’t for every personality type. It can be grinding, emotional work, with long hours and average pay. However, those who are a good fit for the job may find it to be incredibly rewarding.

Listening

A good substance abuse counselor should be an empathetic listener with the ability to read between the lines of verbal communication. They should be socially aware, intuitive, and free of judgment. Critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills are essential parts of the substance abuse therapist’s toolbox.

Boundaries

Counselors must be able to maintain appropriate boundaries, as manipulative personality disorders are known to co-occur with addiction. They should also be able to create comfortable rapport with clients, as the subject matter discussed is often of an extremely personal nature and a strong therapeutic relationship is essential for continued success.

Recovering counselors

Though certainly not everyone, many people who choose a career in substance abuse counseling have personally battled the demons of addiction in the past. This can provide a realistic perspective that’s empathetic to the patient’s point of view, along with a deeper understanding of the ongoing struggle that can come with choosing sobriety. Many people seeking counseling to battle their addiction prefer to go through the journey with the support of a therapist who has been in the trenches of substance abuse themselves.

Over time, many substance abuse counselors experience heightened levels of career burnout. The workload can be heavy and emotionally draining. Effective stress management skills are essential, and self-care is an integral part of a successful counseling career.

Bachelor’s in Substance Abuse Counseling

online-bachelors3

A bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling or addiction counseling typically takes three to four years to complete and encompasses 120 semester hours of college credit.

With a bachelor’s degree, aspiring substance abuse counselors will start their careers off on the right foot. Students will graduate with an understanding of the basic psychological and sociological factors behind addiction, as well as a grasp on counseling theory, techniques, and ethics.

While each school’s program differs in the specific courses students will have to take, the bulk of general class requirements remain the same. Your course load will likely start off with several general education classes before focusing on the psychology and sociology courses students will need to meet the requirements of their major. Topics will include individual and family counseling, healthcare ethics, and addiction-specific topics about assessing, treating, and preventing substance abuse disorders.

A master’s or doctoral degree beyond a bachelor’s is preferred by many employers and is required for therapists to hold before they can open a private practice. However, a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling may be enough to get a foot in the industry door.

School Curriculum

online-bachelors4

Students who want to start on the path to become a substance abuse counselor should expect to take a curriculum of courses focused on psychology and sociology topics. Students will come away with the assessment and counseling skills needed to perform their jobs well.

Course topics may include:

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Theories of Counseling
  • Case Management
  • Psychology
  • Family and Group Counseling
  • Individual Counseling
  • Psychological Evaluation
  • Diagnosis of Behavioral and Chemical Dependency
  • Pharmacology and Psychopharmacology

Required courses will vary from school to school, but students can expect to graduate with a knowledge of the fundamentals of substance abuse counseling. Some of the topics that students will come away with a working understanding of include:

  • Assessment and diagnostic skills
  • Treatment methods and tactics
  • Case evaluation and documentation
  • Facilitation of group and individual sessions
  • Legal and ethical issues associated with and/or caused by substance abuse

Students may also tailor their degree to the career path they plan to follow upon graduation by taking classes that will be directly applicable to their desired career focus. Concentrations lead to careers involving social work, child psychology, psychotherapy, and more. Students should consult with their advisors to choose a path that works for them.

Choosing the Right School and Program

With all the programs available touting the best substance abuse counseling education, it might be overwhelming to decide where to start.

Many colleges offer online bachelor’s degrees in the field of substance abuse counseling. For students who choose to forgo the traditional on-campus education, this can be a great place to begin a rewarding career.

Online programs can be an ideal choice for students who learn best at their own speed. Classes are far more flexible, and students can fit their education in their lives with minimal sacrifice. Whether you’re looking to take your time or race through your degree, online classes can be a great solution. On-campus programs are still a good option for a bachelor’s degree as well, especially for those seeking a traditional college experience.

Accreditation

online-bachelors6

The most important thing to look for when selecting a college or university is accreditation. In order for your degree to hold water in the academic community, it needs to come from an accredited source.

Accreditation is verification that a school has been vetted and deemed to be educationally sound. Look for a college with regional accreditation from one of the following bureaus:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Learning
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

National accreditation is also available but is most often used by for-profit universities. A degree from an accredited institution is a prerequisite for certification by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Career Outlook

Students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree frequently choose to further their education with a graduate degree. This is essential for aspiring substance abuse counselors who may want to open their own practice, as well as students who wish to continue to their Ph.D.

Substance abuse counselors who opt to enter the job market upon graduation may be qualified to find employment in one of the following positions:

  • Case manager
  • Probation/parole officer
  • Addiction counselor
  • Recovery coach
  • Trauma counselor
  • Licensed drug and alcohol counselor (LDAC)

It’s worth noting that a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling does not equal licensure. You’ll need to check with your state to find out what’s required in order for you to begin practicing as a licensed mental health professional.

With the national demand for substance abuse counselors being as high as it currently is, the job outlook for the career is soaring. Addiction counselor jobs are projected to climb by as much as 23 percent by 2026.

Salary Expectations

online-bachelors8

As of May 2017, the median annual salary for substance abuse counselors was $43,300. The highest ten percent in the industry earned a median pay of $70,840, with the lowest ten percent bringing in about $27,310.

Substance abuse counselors working for the government tend to earn the highest salaries, with the healthcare industry coming in second.