Substance Abuse Counselor Careers








$38,120 /yr

$18.33 /hr

All Stats from

Substance abuse counselors play an important role in the recovery process for people suffering with addiction issues. They provide treatment, support, referrals, and counseling to those with addiction to drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and other problems in a variety of settings—including hospitals, treatment facilities and private practices.

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description

Substance abuse counselors assess their patients’ mental and physical condition, the severity of their addiction, and their ability to benefit from certain types of treatment. They work with patients to develop a treatment plan, often in consultation with patients’ families. They also help patients identify the triggers that could pull them back into addiction, and develop plans to avoid those triggers.

Substance abuse counselors can also play an important role in helping patients’ families cope with the patient’s addiction problems, develop strategies to help the patient recover, and get support from outside sources when needed. Some substance abuse counselors are active within their communities, developing addiction awareness programs and conducting outreach.

Some substance abuse counselors use methodologies based on the 12-step process from Alcoholics Anonymous. They may work with patients in individual or group settings. They can also give help in terms of job placement and referrals, and help patients begin again with work.

Substance abuse counselors often work in partnership with social workers, doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists or psychologists. They can also give referrals to outside resources such as job placement programs.

Some counselors specialize in certain groups—such as teenagers, the homeless, veterans, or those with disabilities. Some are crisis intervention specialists, working with patients who are in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. And some work mostly with those who have been sentenced to addiction counseling through the court system. A substance abuse counselor might find work in outpatient or residential substance abuse centers, residential facilities, hospitals, government programs, prisons and juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, corporate employee assistance programs, and in private practice.

How to Become A Substance Abuse Counselor

Degrees. Education requirements vary depending on the state you live in, your employer, and your specialty. In some cases, you may be able to find work as a substance abuse counselor with only a high school diploma and the proper certification. Some employers and states require Bachelor- or Master’s degree levels of education, however. Generally, those with higher levels of education are authorized to provide more services and don’t need as much supervision. This field is generally friendly to accredited online education.

Licensure and certification.
If you are interested in opening a private practice, you must earn a license. This requires a Master’s degree, a passing grade on a state exam, and up to 3,000 hours of hands-on experience in a supervised clinical setting. Once you earn your license, you will need to keep it up with continuing education on a yearly basis—requirements vary by state. Check out the National Board for Certified Counselors to find out more about your state’s licensure requirements.

If you’re not working in private practice, the requirements are less strict—and vary depending on your state. Not all states require those working outside of private practice to earn a Master’s. Most, however, require prospective substance abuse counselors to pass a state-administered exam.

If you enter the field with a lower level of education, you may need to undergo more on-site training than someone starting out with a Master’s degree.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the average yearly wage for substance abuse counselors was $38,120 as of 2010. Those at the low end of the pay spectrum earned about $24,690, while those at the high end earned over $60,400. Generally, those working for hospitals earned the most—an average of $45,160—while those in residential substance abuse facilities earned the least, at around $33,570.

Job Outlook for Substance Abuse Counselors

The outlook for this profession is strong—expected to rise by approximately 27% in the next ten years, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This is partially due to a trend in the court system to sentence drug offenders to undergo treatment rather than jail time.  Through the next decade, this trend is expected to continue and fuel an increased demand for substance abuse professionals in a variety of settings. The fastest growth in this area is projected to be in individual and family services, at around 49%.

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

There is currently a shortage of qualified substance abuse counselors, so those with the skills and education are always in demand—especially those with higher level of education. In addition, the turnover for this position can be quite high—so it’s usually not difficult to find a job. The low education requirements in some states make it even easier, although this is not true everywhere.

This is not an easy career, however. The work can be stressful—and not just because of the intractable nature of the problems many clients face. Substance abuse counselors often must handle large workloads without the level of support needed. In addition, counselors are often called upon to intervene in crisis situations and work evenings and weekends in clinical settings. Even at the top of the pay scale, average wages for this job are not high. Even so, this career can be highly rewarding—for the right individual.


Additional Information:

Occupational Outlook Handbook: Substance Abuse Counselors

Where to Find Substance Abuse Counselor Jobs:
iHire Mental Health