What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor, also known as an addiction counselor or a drug and alcohol treatment specialist, work alongside those who are facing the struggles of addiction and substance dependence.

Substance abuse counselors provide support to those who are in various stages of the recovery process, teaching recovery programs, introducing addicts to healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms, and providing counseling for the mental health and behavioral issues which often go hand-in-hand with substance abuse.

Job Description and Common Tasks

A substance abuse counselor will handle a variety of clients with different needs, and no day is the same. Common tasks a Substance Abuse Counselor may do day-to-day include:

Evaluating clients to determine both the seriousness of the addiction and the best treatment for the path towards the road to recovery. Creating follow-up reports and evaluations

Running talk therapy sessions with both individuals and groups to help understand their addictions, including what has caused their addiction and what can be done to improve their health and recover from addiction

Setting goals and recovery plans with individuals, including general education about addiction through to serious interventions, detoxes or inpatient treatment

Referring patients to further services which can provide support, such as welfare and domestic abuse support services

Runing crisis interventions where a substance abuser is confronted with their addiction in a manner which is honest, sympathetic and non-judgemental

Working alongside clients’ family and close friends to help them provide support towards patients and assist them with their own trauma recovery

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Initial skills required to become a Substance Abuse Counselor include listening, critical thinking, reasoning and a deep knowledge of the nature and dangers of addiction and its causes. They are also required to be incredibly empathetic and sympathetic, as they will often be dealing with individuals who have experienced extreme trauma and stress.

If you believe your communication and perceptiveness skills will make you a great Substance Abuse Counselor, the career path to become qualified is clear.

Most Substance Abuse Counselor and related roles require a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject such as clinical psychology, alongside supervised experience working alongside
those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Real-world training and experience is vital for the role, as Substance Abuse Counselors will face a diverse range of clients at different levels of addiction, and more experience will strengthen your skills and prepare an individual for crisis interventions.

You can gain relevant experience through volunteer work with addiction support charities, working in other areas of counseling, or even through your own addiction recovery.

Depending on the state where you want to work, you may also need a master’s degree in a relevant subject and a license to work as a Substance Abuse Counselor. You will need to renew your licence every few years.

Relevant license exams include the National Counseling Exam (NCE), and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Counselors will also benefit from the general practice credential of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Gaining these licenses require passing a series of written and oral exams.

Every Substance Abuse Counselor must pass a felony and child abuse background check before starting any role, and most will be expected to pass regular drug tests.

Pros and Cons of Being A Substance Abuse Counselor

There is no hiding the fact that being a Substance Abuse Counselor can have its tough moments. You are working alongside those who have experienced, and are experiencing deep trauma. However, the role can also be also deeply rewarding.

Pros of Being a Substance Abuse Counselor Include…

Demand for the role is increasing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Substance Abuse Counselor positions is projected to grow by 22% from 2018 to 2028. In the wake of increased awareness of the issue of addiction during the opioid crisis, there is an increasing demand for those with counseling qualifications to provide emotional and practical support.

Successful cases of addiction recovery can be uniquely rewarding. You will be working with a diverse range of clients, and not everyone you work with will see a happy ending. However, seeing an individual recover from addiction and turn their life around with your help and support is extremely satisfying. Substance Abuse Counselors’ see the difference they have made first hand.

The role has profound social value. Many who choose to be Substance Abuse Counselors often choose to because they want to provide meaningful help to those who need it most. It requires commitment and strong principles, but has the level of job satisfaction which comes from roles which are challenging yet make a genuine difference.

Cons of Being a Substance Abuse Counselor Include…

You won’t always win. Addiction recovery can be a frustrating process to guide through and witness. It is likely you will see you patients relapse and possibly even pass away despite your best efforts. You may be vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems when dealing with these cases.

You will be fighting for your patients. Services you refer addiction patients to will often not treat them with the same level of sympathy and understanding you have provided. There are difficult moments when you need to ‘make the case’ for your patient to your fellow healthcare and welfare professionals.

Substance Abuse Counselors may experience stress from the demanding nature of the role. With a large increase in demand for addiction specialists in the last decade, you will find your work is important, but that there is a lot of if. Many in the role need to quickly learn how to manage their stress and workload, alongside controlling feelings of frustration before they risk burn-out.

Who Employs Substance Abuse Counselors?

Substance Abuse Counselors work for a range of healthcare and social services providers. These include mental health hospitals (both inpatient and outpatient), substance abuse centers and general state, local and private hospitals.

Both schools and prisons also hire Substance Abuse Counselors to help those going through addiction within these institutions.

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