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. Job growth for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is on track to grow by an estimated 25% from 2019 to 2029.*

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 multifaceted consequences that involve their behavioral health, physical health, finances, employment and family and peer relationships. Moreover, substance abuse not only affects 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 engage in 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 of and contributing factors to 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 within 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 assessment, 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 program. In addition, you can expect to take a state-issued exam and be required 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.

Other Careers You Can Pursue With a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors tend to people’s needs through individual or family counseling sessions to help them with their mental health disorders. Some responsibilities include using psychotherapy within their counseling sessions, discussing clients' personal experiences, thoughts and emotions, and diagnosing clients who are experiencing symptoms of psychological stress and discomfort. To be an effective mental health counselor, you'll need to demonstrate empathy and compassion and employ strong communication and people skills.

School Counselor

A school counselor works within the education system alongside students, whether it is individually, in a classroom environment or in small groups. They provide guidance to students by implementing and managing school programs. Most importantly, they develop academic plans and procedures to help guide students toward their future education in college. School counselors should be empathetic, strong communicators, good listeners, and convey a sense of relatability, trust and understanding.

Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor

Focusing on this particular field within substance abuse counseling, namely drug and alcohol, helps clients cope with these specific kinds of addictions. This help is provided through counseling sessions. Some skills that professionals in this field are encouraged to have are effective listening, confidence, inspiration, motivation, communication and respect for privacy. They use specific methods to help their clients manage their addictions to drugs or alcohol by addressing their emotional and mental attachments to the substance.

Social Service Manager

Social counselors are social workers who help treat patients and diagnose them with mental, emotional and behavioral problems to either individuals, families, couples or certain groups. These types of counselors can work in private practices or healthcare facilities. The duties involved in this career include meeting with clients, setting up daily plans and goals for them to achieve and checking up to see that clients are improving. Social service managers also organize activities for social services programs.

Co-Occurring Disorder Counselor

Co-occurring disorder counselors assist patients who are in recovery from any kind of substance abuse and other co-occurring disorders. Counseling is performed through role modeling, education and empathetic support. Examples of co-occurring disorders can be mental illness, anxiety or depression, which commonly reoccur in a patient’s life.


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.

*COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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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