A substance abuse counselor works to help people overcome addiction and substance abuse. The counselor might stage interventions, conduct intakes, and lead ongoing individual and group therapy sessions. The counselor will assess the client's condition, triggers, and extenuating circumstances--and from there, help them put together a path toward recovery.

Pennsylvania laws and requirements regulate this profession are based on your education level and work background, so the path toward becoming a counselor will look different on a person by person basis.

Here is a bit of background info on the requirements and application process for prospective counselors in the state of Pennsylvania.

Overview and Job Description

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This position is ideal for the type of person who wishes to make a difference in others' lives. Substance abuse counselors must be skilled at communicating and assessing client needs on an individual level. Recovery plans take into account age, education, family, and level of addiction, as well as factors like occupation and income.

And beyond that, sadly, this is a field that likely will remain in high demand. So, with the right education and a clear picture of the requirements ahead, you could be well on your way to a rewarding career in chemical dependency counseling.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) over 15,000 mental health counselors, 6,000 rehab counselors and 9,600 substance abuse counselors are actively employed in Pennsylvania. Average salaries range from $37k to $39k, slightly higher than the national average.

In many cases, counselors will oversee the detox and rehab process, but they also provide ongoing care after treatment. Duties include evaluating the problem, leading group therapy sessions, teaching healthy coping mechanisms, and helping patients find jobs and get their career back on track.

What the actual job will look like depends heavily on your education and experience.

All counselors can expect to assess clients' addictions and behaviors, as well as any other underlying mental health issues. From there, the counselor will develop a plan of action aimed at benefitting not only the client, but their family, friends, and employer.

Addiction counselors often work one-on-one with clients in a therapeutic setting. Here, they'll work to uncover the triggers or causes of alcoholism or drug abuse. Counselors without a master’s degree will need to work under supervision, while those with an advanced degree may work on their own.

Types of Licensure in Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania has four primary levels of certification. Each level has a different set of requirements they must meet, but the main difference lies in candidates’ education level and how many hours of supervised practice they must complete to earn their certificate.

Here is a look at the options:

Certified Associate Addiction Counselor (CAAC)

This addiction credential does not require a degree, is international in scope and reciprocal, and meets the state staffing requirements.

Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC)

This counseling credential requires a bachelor's degree. Because the certification process is done in conjunction with the IC&RC, Pennsylvania counselors earn an internationally-recognized certification.

Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC)

Candidates must have a Master's degree or higher to qualify for this credential, as well as pass the IC&RC exam.

Associate Addiction Counselor (AAC)

Available to newer addiction counselors wanting to begin the process of working toward full certification. This designation isn’t necessarily specific to the type of degree you’ve earned; rather, it’s a starting point for those looking to obtain any of the certs outlined above.

It’s worth pointing out that while there are opportunities at all levels, more doors will open for you depending on whether you’ve got an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. The primary distinction is, your degree level will determine how many working hours you’ll need before you can become a certified chemical dependency counselor in the state of Pennsylvania.

  • Associate’s degree: minimum 3,640 hours
  • Bachelor’s degree: minimum 1,820 hours
  • Master’s degree: practical course hours may meet the requirement, but this is decided on a case by case basis.

If your human service experience weren’t in an alcohol or drug abuse counseling environment, you'd be required to complete a training program to make up any differences. Many general counselors go on to obtain their substance abuse certification.

Education Required for Practice in the State of Pennsylvania

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Becoming a licensed advanced counselor in Pennsylvania means candidates must complete a master’s or doctoral program in counseling or behavioral sciences. Education must be completed at an accredited college or university.

The program should consist of 60 semester hours, spread out between topics like human growth and development, group work, career and lifestyle development, research and program evaluation and professional orientation.

As a point of reference, you can take a look at the 049 Pa. Code § 49.2. This document outlines the full range of subjects that make up an acceptable program. Additionally, you'll need 100 hours of practicum, as well as an internship of 600 or more hours.

Still, going through all these rungs of the educational system, but the Certified Associate Addiction Counselor (CAAC) level, again, you won’t need a bachelor’s degree. Still, you’ll need to meet some other criteria before you’re eligible to get out there in the field.

CADC Credential

If you’re going in with a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely explore getting your Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) credential.

  • To earn the CADC credential, you'll need to have completed a bachelor's degree at an accredited college or university.
  • You must also complete 300 hours of education specifically geared toward counseling and addiction. These educational requirements are similar to those linked to the CAAC certification.
  • Additionally, the candidate must obtain 4,000 hours of work experience in substance abuse counseling. If you have a master's degree, the number of hours will be reduced.
  • Candidates must pass the IC&RC exam.

CAADC Credential

To become a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC), you’ll need to have a master’s degree. Here’s a look at the requirements for this designation:

  • A master’s degree, minimum, in a behavioral health field, with emphasis on counseling. Degrees must, of course, be earned at an accredited college or university.
  • 24 credit hours of counseling related coursework—While the board doesn't specify the classes needed, they must be directly related to treatment services, behavioral assessments, and diagnostics. It's also worth pointing out that entry-level courses like psychology 101 don't count toward said coursework--you'll need hands-on experience in this particular field.
  • Minimum of 3200 hours of supervised work, specifically in substance abuse counseling, completed in 24 months or less.
  • 100 hours spent working under clinical supervision
  • 1600 hours working directly with clients
  • And finally, passing the exam.

Your degree must be in the mental health field--in counseling, general psychology, marriage and family studies, substance abuse, rehabilitation, or another related area. The other part of this is, your degree must be earned at a regionally accredited institution.

Clinical Supervision Explained

Clinical supervision requirements will be based on the degree that you hold. For example, a candidate with a master's degree will need to complete a minimum of 3,600 clinical practice hours, post-graduate.

Those with a doctoral degree will see those hours reduced to just 2,400 supervised hours. Of those clinical practice hours, half must be performed in person, in what is called “direct client services.” This includes therapy sessions and other types of hands-on activities. Admin tasks such as staff meetings, office management, or intakes do not count toward this requirement.

Pennsylvania State Testing Requirements

Counselor candidates can download information for their desired credential from the board website. There, you'll receive detailed information about certification criteria.

Fees vary, depending on your certification. A CADC candidate can expect to pay $350 for the exam. Retests are $200, and an AAC credential is $100.

You'll also need to produce supporting documents like recorded practice hours, transcripts, and a signed and notarized code of ethics.

The board will then review the application packet and deem the candidate eligible--or not--to take the exam. Once approved, the candidate can schedule their exam. If they fail, they must wait 60 days before they can try again.

Applications remain open for one calendar year. it's also worth noting that, if you have an existing CADC degree, you can upgrade your license if you earn a master's degree and complete the advanced IC&RC exam.

Renewal/Continuing Education

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The Pennsylvania Certification Board does require that counselors take courses to stay up to date on the current best practices. What’s nice about the board’s site is, they’ve made it really easy for counselors and candidates to sign up for courses, directly from the site.

Additionally, if you’d rather take a course at a another institution, you can check your desired classes in the Board’s database to see if it qualifies as continuing education.

Pennsylvania Substance Abuse Associations

As mentioned above, there are a few associations Pennsylvania substance abuse professionals can turn to--whether that's for continuing education, certification, or state requirements.

Here's a look at each organization and what they do for counselors and candidates in this field:

Pennsylvania Certification Board (PCB)

The same Board that issues licenses to mental health counselors and social workers. The PCB site serves as a resource for prospective candidates looking for info on becoming a counselor and how to navigate the process. Their official website is quite helpful and features classes, study guides, and even offers a pre-application education review so you know where you stand.

IC&RC

The International Credentialing Organization. The PCB is actually a member of this organization, and they offer reciprocal licensing, so those moving between states can easily transfer their license and continue their work. The IC&RC is responsible for issuing the licensing exam and they set the standard for the profession on a global scale. Their website functions as a resource for those looking to learn more about the testing process.

NAADAC

The Pennsylvania Association for Addiction Professionals is the local chapter of the NAADAC, a professional organization for addiction professionals. The site offers webinars, seminars, and other ongoing training and networking services. It’s an optional, paid membership, but many counselors find the association to be a good resource.

Salary Expectations

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Finally, if you’re considering this career path, know that you’ll truly need to be passionate about making a difference in the recovery community. This is difficult work and you might not always take home the biggest paycheck. Salaries, on average, stay within the $35k-$40k, but that’s accounting for those with an associate degree, bachelor’s, and master’s. Of course, you can improve your outcome (and desirability) by earning a master’s degree or higher.

With that in mind, Pennsylvania substance abuse counselors stand to make a big difference--helping clients through the recovery process, and the subsequent maintenance stages that will keep them moving forward in their lives.