How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

substance abuse counselor meeting with patients

Substance abuse is a devastating illness that affects every aspect of a person’s life, as well as their community. If you are looking for a career that enables you to work directly with individuals and help them overcome significant challenges, consider becoming a substance abuse counselor. It is a great time to explore this career, as the demand for qualified professionals is quite high. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the job growth rate for this field is expected to be 25% through 2029. This rate of job growth is much faster than average, and it represents the addition of about 79,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.1

Understanding the Responsibilities of Substance Abuse Counselors

Addiction, chemical dependency and substance abuse comprise a significant public health crisis. Individuals struggling with substance abuse typically suffer from multifaceted consequences that involve their behavioral health, physical health, finances, employment and family and peer relationships. Moreover, substance abuse does not only affect the individual; it also affects families, friendships, workplaces, schools and entire communities. As a result, substance abuse counselors play a vital role in supporting the well-being of individuals and their communities. On any given day, substance abuse counselors might do any of the following activities:

  • Assess clients’ readiness for treatment by considering their behavioral, mental and physical issues
  • Develop treatment recommendations, goals and plans and review them with clients
  • Help clients develop coping skills, positive thought patterns and productive behaviors
  • Work with clients’ family members, teaching them coping skills and helping them overcome challenges
  • Connect clients to community support services that can help them rebuild their lives

Earning an Undergraduate Substance Abuse Degree

The first step in pursuing this rewarding career is to earn your undergraduate substance abuse degree. It is ideal to choose a Bachelor of Science in Counseling program that offers an emphasis in substance abuse and chemical dependency treatment. In this type of program, you will study topics such as the following:

  • The root causes and contributing factors of substance use disorders
  • The role and application of psychopharmacology in addiction treatment
  • Co-occurring disorders, including depression, anxiety and HIV/AIDS
  • Case management, crisis intervention and relapse prevention

In addition, a well-rounded bachelor’s degree program should offer an exploration of ethical considerations for this profession. It should also cover topics such as working with family members and providing multicultural counseling services.

In some states, a bachelor’s degree in counseling is all that is required to become a certified substance abuse counselor. However, other states do require a master’s degree. Even if you plan to practice in a state that requires only a bachelor’s degree, you should strongly consider furthering your education in order to become a more competitive job applicant.

Earning a Graduate-Level Degree

A master’s degree in substance abuse counseling will give you an in-depth look at counseling theories and the nature of addictions. You will explore individual and group counseling techniques and develop stronger skills in assessments, diagnostics and therapeutic treatments. You may also take a closer look at co-occurring disorders and family issues caused by substance abuse.

Your graduate program should include a practicum or internship experience. This enables you to put what you have learned to work in a real-world setting. You will work under the supervision of a clinical supervisor as you perform counseling activities. Make the most of your practicum hours by being an active observer, asking questions, taking notes and learning from your missteps. You are likely to find that your colleagues are an invaluable source of guidance as you work to refine your skills and techniques.

Obtaining Licensure or Certification

Every state has its own licensing or certification requirements. In general, you may find that you need to complete additional supervised work experience hours after graduating from your master’s degree program. In addition, you can expect to take a state-issued exam. You are also likely to need to pass a criminal background check.

Along with obtaining mandatory certification or licensure, you might consider pursuing voluntary certifications. These additional credentials can help you pursue a lucrative position in the field. One source of voluntary certification is NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. Some of the certifications that NAADAC offers include the following:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor Level I (NCAC I)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor Level II (NCAC II)
  • Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)
  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)
  • National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor (NCAAC)

Obtaining one of these certifications will reflect your dedication to providing the best possible counseling services to your future clients.

You can pursue your dreams of becoming a counselor by earning a substance abuse degree at Grand Canyon University. Undergraduate students may apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Counseling with an Emphasis in Addiction, Chemical Dependency and Substance Abuse degree program, while graduate students can explore the Master of Science in Addiction Counseling degree. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about our psychology and counseling program options.

1 Retrieved from, September 2020.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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