Substance Abuse Counselor

After 38 years of working as a substance abuse counselor helping thousands of individuals, Harvey Blackmon retired from the clinical supervisor position he held at the Mecklenburg County Substance Abuse Services Center in Charlotte.

Near the beginning of his nearly four decade-long career, Blackmon confronted his own misconceptions surrounding addictions. “At the time, Blackmon said even he thought substance abuse was a problem of will or faith, but as he continued to help patients heal, he realized that it is a disease,” writes The Charlotte Observer’s Neil Haggerty (June 24, 2013).

“Many of the people Blackmon has worked with say he had a special ability to get clients to share problems,” reports Haggerty.

Did You Know?

  • According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence,6 million people suffer from “alcohol abuse or dependence and “more than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking…”
  • According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 22.5 million or 8.7% Americans aged 12+ used an illicit drug (i.e. marijuana, hashish, cocaine, crack, heroin, hallucinogens and the non-medical use of prescription drugs) the month prior to the survey.
Sources: ;

Active listening is one of the major qualities held by effective substance abuse counselors. Compassion, communication, resourcefulness, patience, understanding, the ability to multitask and take care of oneself in order to be able to help others, and having an extensive knowledge of addictions, treatment techniques and services in the community, are also key characteristics.

Are you this type of person? If so, a career as a substance abuse counselor can be challenging, but oh so fulfilling—particularly as you help individuals (and thus their loved ones) turn their lives around for the better.

“At the time, Blackmon said even he thought substance abuse was a problem of will or faith, but as he continued to help patients heal, he realized that it is a disease…”

Substance Abuse Counselors At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: Degree requirements vary by state and employer, but generally an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s are required.
  • Licensure Requirements: Certification is usually required (exact requirements vary by state/jurisdiction)
  • Specializations: Specialties include working with specific populations, addressing particular substances or employing specific forms of therapy.
  • Median Annual Salaries: $38,520*
  • Job Outlook: 27% growth from 2010 to 2020**

Career & Job Description

“The substance abuse counselor often is the primary therapist working with clients on their alcohol or drug dependence or abuse,” state Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan, authors of Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, 4th edition (2013). Substance abuse counselors may work in outpatient substance abuse and mental health centers, residential treatment facilities, hospitals, correctional facilities and other community service, health or counseling facilities. They not only help clients address their addiction or substance abuse concerns. Substance abuse counselors also try to use a holistic approach to address all aspects of their clients’ lives, so that they are more able to conquer their addiction head on.

Substance abuse counselors may perform the following rehabilitative and counseling-related tasks:

• Perform assessments of clients to evaluate their history and current use of substances, their openness to particular forms of treatment, and to possibly find out more about other underlying or concurrent health concerns.

• Work and confer with the clients and other professionals (such as physicians, psychologists, social workers, probation officers and others) to develop and/or implement treatment plans.

• Maintain progress notes and update files for each client.

• Provide counseling to clients one-on-one and in group settings (and in some cases with clients’ families or spouses).

• Act as an advocate for clients during times of crisis.

Substance abuse counselors also try to use a holistic approach to address all aspects of their clients’ lives, so that they are more able to conquer their addiction head on.

• Help clients connect to other key services: “Counselors refer patients to a variety of other services that may help provide a stable platform from which they can fight their drug addiction,” states The Princeton Review (‘A Day in the life of a Substance Abuse Counselor’). “The abuser may be directed to a family agency, food pantry, physician or psychiatrist, vocational training center, lawyer, welfare agent or other professionals depending on the needs of the individual.”

• Educate clients, their loved ones, and the public on the reality of substance abuse as well as preventative and recovery measures. This may include organizing outreach programs for the community.

Specializations / Concentrations

Depending on where a substance abuse counselor is employed, they may work with a wide variety of clients and substance abuse concerns; alternatively they may work in specialty treatment facilities with particular client populations or they may be specialized in particular treatment approaches.

Specialties within substance abuse counseling include:

• Working with adolescents.
• Working with homeless individuals.
• Working with seniors.
• Working with pregnant or postpartum women.
• Working with members of the LGBTQ community.
• Working with individuals with a dual diagnosis (such as those also suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia or another mental illness along with dealing with substance abuse.)
• Working with criminal justice clients.
• Working with repeat DUI offenders.
• Working with low-income clients.
• Specialized in crisis intervention.
• Specialized in opioid dependency.
• Specialized in alcohol dependency.
• Specialized in prescription drug abuse.
• Specialized (and certified/trained) in Motivational Enhancement Therapy.
• Specialized (and certified/trained) in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
• Specialized (and certified/trained) in Mindfulness Practice
And More!

Explore Your Career Path

The Educational Journey

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the educational requirements for substance abuse counselors “range from a high school diploma to a master’s degree, depending on the setting, type of work, state regulations, and level of responsibility.” However authors Kuther and Morgan add that, “Substance abuse counselors often are employed at the associate or bachelor’s level, with certification.” Substance abuse counseling programs are either offered on campus, online or both, depending on the school.

  1. Associate’s Degree: Relevant two-year degree programs include a Substance Abuse Counseling Associate Degree, an Alcohol & Drug Counseling Associate Degree or a Human Services Associate Degree with a Substance Abuse Counseling Track and other related degrees. An important feature to look for among Associate degree programs is the inclusion of Internship hours which can be applied to certification requirements.
  2. Relevant Careers with an Associate’s Degree: Those who complete an Associate Degree are generally eligible for Substance Abuse Counseling entry-level positions.
  3. Bachelor’s Degree: Examples of relevant four-year programs include a Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling, a Bachelor’s Degree in Addiction Studies or a Bachelor’s of Psychology with a specialization in Addictions. Some universities also offer Substance Abuse Counseling certificate programs to be taken concurrently with a Bachelor’s degree.
  4. Relevant Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree, you can apply for positions such as a Substance Abuse Counselor, Community Service Manager, Admissions Coordinator, Correctional Caseworker, Social Worker Associate, Recovery Team Facilitator, Addictions Treatment Counselor, Prevention Program Specialist… (Note some positions may require previous experience).

Career Advancement: After working in the substance abuse counseling field for a time, you might consider taking a Master’s degree, which will open up many doors for advancement (i.e. Director and Managerial roles).

Helpful Tip

At the same time you are researching degree programs, find out the educational and experiential requirements for gaining Substance Abuse Counseling certification in your state. This will help you choose a program that offers you a significant amount of the credit and internship hours required for certification. Many to most employers will require certification and even when it is voluntary, having certification will make you more employable.

Certification Requirements

It’s important to find out about certification requirements in the area you plan on working as they vary from state to state. To find out about your particular state’s certification process, check out either the National Board for Certified Counselors’ (NBCC) directory or the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network’ (ATTC) Certification Information page:

You can also become nationally certified through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP), an accreditation offered by way of the NAADAC (the Association for Addiction Professionals, a great association to join once you’re in the field). “Certain states allow counselors to use the NAADAC certification for the state certification as well,” says the NAADAC. “In other states, where the NAADAC certification cannot serve as a state certification, applicants must be certified by their respective state before taking the NAADAC test and applying for national certification.”

Need Help with Substance Abuse?

If you think you or someone you know might have a problem with substance abuse or addictions, there’s no shame in asking for help:

SAMHSA ~ Find “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment”

SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Treatment Referral Service): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

RehabInfo: 1-866-531-8636

  • Reference & Data Information Provided by the Following:
  • * May 2012 (for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • **2012-2013 Occupational Handbook Edition (for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS
  • Other Sources/References
  • Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, (4th edition) by Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan (2013) (page 24)