Everything you need to know about becoming a substance abuse counselor

You’ve longed for a career that will empower you to positively impact others, so it’s no wonder you’re considering becoming a substance abuse counselor. These professionals, also called addiction counselors, work to help people caught in the throes of substance abuse regain control of their lives.


As a substance abuse counselor, you could show people how to overcome their dependencies on alcohol or drugs by providing expert care, guidance and support. This, by extension, can improve their physical and emotional well-being, their psychological functioning and their relationships with loved ones.


As you contemplate this meaningful mental health career, it’s good to learn more about what the role entails. You’ll also need to know the various steps that can help get you there. Join us as we explore the ins and outs of working as a substance abuse counselor.


First, why work as an addiction counselor?

Addiction counselors can play an instrumental role in helping those experiencing substance misuse — and their work is greatly needed. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), addiction to drugs or alcohol is considered a mental illness. Substance use disorder changes a person’s normal behaviors and can interfere with their ability to complete their daily functions, such as going to work, attending school and maintaining positive relationships with others.


Substance abuse is actually a widespread issue throughout the nation. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that 19.7 million Americans ages 12 and older battled substance use disorder in 2017. Almost 74 percent of those individuals experienced alcohol use disorder, while 38 percent faced illicit drug use disorder. Some individuals fall into both of these categories. Yet of the nearly 21 million Americans who needed treatment for a substance use disorder, only 4 million received it.


The unfortunate truth about addiction is that there is no absolute “cure.” In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates the relapse rate for alcohol or drug addiction is between 40 and 60 percent. But in working with a substance abuse counselor, recovering addicts can learn to change their attitudes and behaviors by adapting to new life practices and utilizing important coping skills.


In this way, effective counselors can be instrumental in helping people turn their lives around with therapeutic care, education, coaching and recovery support. Read on to learn more about what substance abuse counselors do and how to become one.


What does a substance abuse counselor do?

According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit treatment provider, a typical day as an addiction counselor might include the following:

  • Providing one-on-one client counseling
  • Facilitating group therapy
  • Collaborating with other professionals to address co-occurring disorders
  • Communicating with referents
  • Conferring with family members
  • Managing unforeseen challenges and crises
  • Caseload documentation, including charting counseling progress


As they work with clients individually and in group sessions, substance abuse counselors may opt to incorporate 12-step programs like those used in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Their focus is on teaching those overcoming alcohol or drug dependence to cope with stress and problematic life events in ways that will help them recover.


Addiction counselors also work to help their clients improve their personal relationships. They might provide clients with strategies for discussing their addiction with family and friends or help recovering addicts rebuild professional relationships in an effort to re-establish their careers.


To be successful in this career path, substance abuse counselors must be patient, compassionate and have strong interpersonal, listening and communication skills. Additionally, SAMHSA identified 123 competencies that are considered essential. The key areas of proficiency include the following:

  • Patient assessment and screening
  • Treatment planning
  • Patient referral
  • Coordination of client care and services
  • Individual client and group counseling
  • Family education
  • Cultural competency


How can you become a substance abuse counselor?

To land a job as a substance abuse counselor, you’ll need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. However, a master’s degree in social work, mental health counseling, psychology or a similar field can enable professionals to provide more services to their clients. This can include private one-on-one counseling sessions, requiring less supervision than those with fewer educational qualifications.


If you hope to work in private practice, you’ll need to be licensed. Outside of working in this environment, the requirements to work as a substance abuse counselor will vary. Not all states expect counselors to have a specific degree, but many require them to pass a state-issued exam. The contact information for your state’s regulating board can be found through the National Board for Certified Counselors.


In addition to working in private practice, substance abuse counselors can find employment in rehabilitation facilities, K-12 schools, college and university systems, mental health centers, probation and parole agencies, insurance and managed care organizations, hospitals and employee assistance programs. While having personal experience overcoming alcohol or drug addiction isn’t a requirement, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says this is sometimes viewed as especially helpful and insightful to those seeking treatment.


The promising news for those interested in pursuing a career as a substance abuse counselor is that jobs in the field are projected to grow 23 percent by 2026. This is more than triple the rate of the national average for all occupations.


Find your purpose as an addiction counselor

Many substance abuse counselors feel a remarkable sense of purpose and satisfaction from helping people take hold of their lives after drug or alcohol dependence. Making a tangible difference in people’s lives day in and day out by becoming a substance abuse counselor could be exactly what you’re looking for in a career.


Now that you know more about this role, you may be wondering how to proceed. If you haven’t yet earned your bachelor’s degree, you can start by pursuing a BA in Psychology or a BA in Social Work. If you’ve already completed your undergraduate education, consider taking the next step by earning a Master of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis on Professional Clinical Counseling.



Become a Student

Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?

Further your education with a few questions

Student Type
Please enter your zip code to proceed.
Please enter a valid zip code to proceed.
Please select a degree type
Please select your area of interest
Please select a program type
Please select a session
Have you served in the U.S. Military or are you a Military Dependant?
Please enter your name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your email to proceed
Please enter a valid email address
Please enter your phone number to proceed.
Please enter a valid phone number.

UMass Global is partnered with hundreds of employers like yours—learn if you’re eligible for tuition discounts by providing your work email address.

Please enter a valid work email address
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

About UMass Global

Earn your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or certificate at UMass Global, a regionally accredited university.

We value your privacy

By submitting this form, I agree that UMass Global and/or Kaplan North America, LLC may contact me about educational services by voice, pre-recorded message and/or text message using automated technology, at the phone number provided, including wireless numbers. I understand that my consent is not required to attend University of Massachusetts Global. Privacy Policy