What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

By Beth Greenwood; Updated July 05, 2017
Woman getting depressed in group therapy
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A substance abuse counselor could be an unlicensed worker who provides limited support services under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional, or a fully-trained therapist in private practice with a master’s degree and professional certification. Requirements vary from state to state. In all cases, however, the substance abuse counselor works with people who have substance abuse problems or addictions to drugs, alcohol, or both.

Teaching and Support

A substance abuse counselor helps people learn to cope with problems and to deal with stress by learning strategies other than self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. The counselor meets with the client, assesses his readiness for treatment, develops a treatment plan, and sets mutual goals with the client and his family or caregivers. Much of what a counselor does is teach: about addictions and the physical and mental effects of drugs and alcohol; about different kinds of behaviors or ways to manage thoughts and emotions; and about resources such as support groups, health care or job-placement services.

Working Conditions

Substance abuse counselors work in settings such as mental health hospitals or clinics, outpatient treatment centers, residential care facilities or in private practice. Other possible work settings include detox centers, halfway houses, employee assistance programs or prisons. Most work full time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in some settings, they may need to work evenings, nights or weekends and holidays. The work is stressful, and demand for services often outstrips availability; substance abuse counselors often have large caseloads.

Education and Other Issues

To become a substance abuse counselor, you may need anything from a high school diploma to a master’s degree. The work setting, state regulations, type of work and level of responsibility determine educational requirements, according to the BLS. Counselors with more limited education will have less responsibility and require more supervision. They are also more likely to receive on-the-job training. To work in private practice, a substance abuse counselor must typically have a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In addition, continuing education, certification and/or a license may be required, depending on the state.

Job Outlook

Job demand in the field of substance abuse counseling is high; job growth is projected to be 31 percent through 2022, according to the BLS. That figure is much faster than the 11 percent average growth predicted for all occupations. As mental health and counseling services are increasingly likely to be covered by insurance payers, people who have substance abuse problems may be more likely to seek treatment. Many states are developing treatment programs for drug offenders rather than using incarceration as a solution. The field also tends to have relatively high turnover due to job stress. Job prospects will be best for those with specialized training and education, according to the BLS. The BLS reports the median salary in this field was $38,520 in 2012.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.