Substance Abuse Counselors Job Description

Substance abuse counselor with client with addiction

The job of an addiction counselor is to guide those with addictions away from substance abuse to prevent the problems it can cause. Because many addictive substances cause the breakdown of the human body and promote illness, those who battle addiction may also suffer from other physical conditions.

Additional, substance abuse can cause behavioral changes that contribute to family discord, financial struggles, joblessness, homelessness and criminal activity. Keep reading to find out more about what it takes to work as an addiction counselor.

What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?

An addiction counselor is a professional set in place to help those struggling with substance abuse to overcome their addiction, seeing it through from start to finish. Before anything, an addiction counselor and then interviews clients to determine the severity of their condition. They then work together with them to develop a counseling plan, which can involve pinpointing triggers, establishing a support network and providing guidance.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

All states require a license to practice substance abuse counseling within a private facility. Earning this license can require up to six years of college and more than 3,000 hours of supervised work experience.1 Counselors who work within a government agency, however can qualify by having a high school diploma, completing accredited addiction counseling courses and gaining three years of supervised work experience.

Students must have a four-year undergraduate degree to qualify for a two-year master’s degree program. Counselors can qualify for a license with a master’s degree in psychology, social work, counseling or mental health.

What Skills Are Required to be a Substance Abuse Counselor?

You will need many skills to become a successful substance abuse counselor. This includes the following:

  • Perseverance and motivation
  • Effective communication (listening and speaking)
  • Respect for client privacy
  • Teamwork
  • Confidence

Counselors often work with individuals who are facing life-changing challenges, so they must know how to best address their patients’ unique problems. A good counselor nurtures a trusting relationship by sympathizing with and understanding each patient while also developing healthy boundaries.

Showing respect and patience is likewise important for addiction counselors, who must recognize that each patient is in a different stage of healing and recovery.

Certification within Education

To become a substance abuse counselor, you must earn a degree from an accredited institution, complete clinical hours under the supervision of a licensed counselor, submit to a background check for any felonies or child abuse records and pass a certification exam.


If you are interested in observing college classes, exploring courses in psychology, counseling or sociology. Ultimately, your education must provide you with a firm understanding of the mental and psychical effects of substance abuse.


Gaining practical experience will allow you to learn important information and develop valuable skills. You can gain some of this experience by putting time and effort into your studies and attending classes. After you earn your degree, however, you will typically be required to work a certain number of supervised hours within a counseling environment.

Careers You Can Obtain

Substance abuse counselors can take many career paths. If you hold a master's degree, you may choose to specialize in certain areas within the field. The following are common work environments for addiction counselors:

  • Individual and family services: Professionals in this field provide families with a variety of counseling, referral and social services.
  • Local and state governments: Within this environment, counselors work in government agencies, such as the United States Department of State, the United States Department of Health and Human Sciences and the United States Department of Homeland Security.
  • Hospitals: Counselors who work in hospitals help patients who often pose a danger to themselves or others and require constant supervision.
  • Outpatient recovery centers: Patients within this environment are considered to have mild or long-term addictions. Counseling in these settings can be provided to individuals or to groups.
  • Residential mental health abuse centers: These centers are set in group homes to promote patients’ mental health via counseling.

Where Does an Addiction Counselor Work?

Substance abuse counselors commonly work in human and social service facilities, detention centers, schools, substance abuse rehabilitation centers and hospitals. These professionals may also choose to open their own practices.

Addiction counselors can also work within prisons, probation agencies, detention facilities, health centers, detox centers, employee assistance programs, or halfway houses. Grand Canyon University’s Master of Science in Addiction Counseling degree can prepare you for a career in professional addiction counseling. To learn more, please visit the College of Humanities and Social Sciences or click the Request More Information button on this page.


1Retrieved from Counseling Degree Guide, Arizona Counseling License Requirements in November 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.