How to Become an Addiction Counselor

addiction group counseling session

A career in addiction counseling is often appealing to those who want to make helping others their life’s work. As an addiction counselor, you will find yourself interacting with people in such a way that you can have a strong, positive influence on their lives. You will be helping others turn their lives around, and in doing this you will be making a positive contribution to the surrounding community.

While there are many steps to becoming an addiction counselor, the career that follows will be a meaningful reward for all your hard work.

Understanding the Role of an Addiction Counselor

An addiction counselor works with people from varied backgrounds who struggle with substance use disorders, including addictions to different kinds of drugs and alcohol. Many of these patients additionally suffer from mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders.

Since these counselors are responsible for helping individuals overcome their challenges, they must be well versed in teaching coping mechanisms and helping patients through whatever hardships they may be experiencing.

On a typical day, an addiction counselor may be found doing any combination of the following tasks: 

  • Evaluating the mental health, medical history and behavioral issues of new clients 
  • Developing treatment goals and plans and discussing them with clients 
  • Helping clients identify obstacles to their recovery and brainstorming solutions for overcoming them 
  • Providing referrals to other community resources as clients work to get their lives back on track 
  • Working with family members to help them understand the nature of addiction and its treatment options

Is a Substance Abuse Counselor the Same Thing as an Addiction Counselor?

One common question surrounding addiction counselors is about the title itself. While looking for a career as an addiction counselor, you may find similarly named positions, such as substance abuse counselor, alcohol and drug counselor or chemical dependency professional. All of these titles will most likely have a similar job description despite the different names, as addiction counselors tend to go by different titles depending on the company or state requirements for an addiction counselor.1

So, if you’re looking to become a substance abuse counselor but can only find job titles such as “addiction counselor,” remember that the different job titles don’t necessarily mean a whole different job.

Earning Your Undergrad Addiction Counseling Degree

The first step in becoming an addiction counselor is to enroll in an undergrad addiction counseling degree program at an accredited university. Because many universities offer similar programs, specific classes for the programs will vary. However, you can generally expect to explore the following topics: 

  • Foundations of Addiction and Substance Use 
  • Psychopharmacology in Treatment of Addiction and Substance Use Disorders 
  • Multicultural Counseling in a Diverse Society 
  • Relapse Prevention in the Treatment of Addiction and Substance Use Disorders 
  • Trauma, Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

Some universities additionally explore special issues in this line of work, such as considerations for working with children and the encouragement of family treatment. When choosing a program, make sure your degree will give you the best possible foundation so that your skills can later be applied toward an advanced degree and licensure.

Earning Your Advanced Addiction Counseling Degree

Often, the next step to becoming an addiction counselor is to earn an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Addiction Counseling. While many substance abuse treatment centers employ those who have just a bachelor’s degree, earning a master’s degree can help you advance your career quickly or meet qualifications of higher-level positions. 

A master’s in addiction counseling can usually be earned in as little as one to three years, and some universities make all or most classes available online, so you can earn your degree at your own pace. Additionally, these programs are designed to help aspiring addiction counselors gain real-world experience and put theories and foundational learning into practice. By the end of your master’s program, you will be prepared to pursue licensure and any additional certifications you may need to help you make the most of your career as an addiction counselor.

Addiction Counselor Licensure and Certification Requirements

To fully begin your career as an addiction counselor, it’s best to earn a related certification. This will not only show employers and potential patients that you’re a qualified counselor, but it will ensure that you’re up to date on the standards.

When looking into licensure, make sure to check with the licensing board for the state in which you plan to practice and evaluate its requirements, so you can begin working toward them. In general, you can expect the licensing board to require academic and clinical experience hours, a background check and a fingerprint clearance.

Each state has its own licensure and certification requirements, and aspiring addiction counselors can also look into national certifications with organizations including the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). This organization offers a variety of national certifications for addiction counselors at different levels; state certification boards typically offer addiction counselor certifications at different levels as well.2

Each level of certification has different requirements, so, when choosing which one to pursue, make sure to check all the requirements for each specific certification. Nonetheless, almost all certifications require you to complete a set amount of clinical experience hours.

Completing Your Clinical Experience Hours

Your state licensing board will specify how many supervised clinical experience hours you must complete before you can get your license or certification. Your master’s degree program may also include a requirement to complete a certain number of practicum or internship hours as part of the curriculum. Some states will require additional hours beyond the requirements of your degree program.

The purpose of supervised clinical hours is to give you direct, on-the-job training beyond what you have learned in the classroom. You will have the opportunity to apply the techniques you have studied to real-life situations. As you work with a diverse client caseload, you will learn how to build rapport with your clients, help them troubleshoot common problems and guide them in developing coping skills.

To get the most out of your clinical experience hours, you may find it helpful to keep a journal. Each night, you could enter some notes about the counseling techniques you used that day and how you might change your approach moving forward. Make sure to get the most out of your clinical experience hours and don’t be afraid to ask questions of your supervisor and other counselors working at the practice.

Finding Work as an Addiction Counselor

Once you earn your degrees, licensure and any certifications you desire, you can finally begin your career as an addiction counselor. Luckily for any aspiring addiction counselor, this career is expected to grow as people continue to seek addiction and mental health counseling services. As the criminal justice system recognizes that substance abusers are less likely to offend again if they get treatment for their addiction, the demand for counselors grows.3

Addiction counselors work in a variety of settings, including: 

  • Mental health and substance abuse centers 
  • Hospitals 
  • Schools 
  • Prisons and correctional facilities 
  • Detox centers

Some addiction professionals also choose to go into private practice, working with other counselors or working individually. This can provide professionals with the freedom to focus on a specialty if they choose, for example working with at-risk children or family treatment.

While addiction counseling can be a demanding and stressful career, it is also an extremely rewarding one. Having the opportunity to impact people in the way that an addiction counselor does is a unique experience that only a certain kind of person chooses to pursue.

You can imbue your passion for helping others with purpose when you earn an addiction counseling degree at Grand Canyon University. GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a variety of comprehensive degree programs, including the Bachelor of Science in Addiction Counseling and the Master of Science in Addiction Counseling. Click on the Request Info button to learn more about how to start your career as an addiction counselor at GCU. 


Retrieved from:, Why Addiction Counselors Go by So Many Names in July 2021 

2The Association for Addiction Professionals, Certification in June 2021 

3U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors in July 2021 

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.