How to become an addictions counselor
Being a counselor can provide you with a fulfilling, rewarding career, and can be an ideal choice for anyone interested in working as a therapist. The counseling field is expanding rapidly, with a wide range of options available to specialize in. One branch of counseling is substance abuse counseling, also referred to as addiction or drug and alcohol counseling.
Depending on your state and your career goals, you can become a certified professional helping those suffering from addiction with a high school diploma and related training, however there is more to being a drug and alcohol counselor than the formalities. Let’s look at the various aspects to help you decide if being a drug and alcohol counselor is a good job for you.
What do drug and alcohol counselors do?
Drug and alcohol counselors have education and training related specifically to counseling those who are suffering from addiction and are working to maintain their recovery. They often work in rehabs, halfway houses, hospitals, prisons, clinics, health departments or other community agency settings.
The counselor has to document every interaction they have with clients including phone calls or emails.
Daily job duties include meeting with client to provide counseling services, along with case management. Many agencies use an electronic medical record system to assist with case management. The counselor has to document every interaction they have with clients including phone calls or emails. They also communicate with members of the treatment team, typically being doctors, social service workers and probation officers. These interactions are also documented.
Drug and alcohol counselors may meet with client family members to provide education about addiction and treatment. They may run groups such as recovery support groups or job skills groups. They may also work as an intake coordinator. The intake process involves the steps for someone to begin treatment. The intake coordinator interviews clients to get their history and help determine what level of care best meets their needs.
Some clients need inpatient treatment where they go to rehab for a period and do not leave that setting. Working in a rehab center can be like working in a hospital setting because clients require 24-hour care. Other clients have needs that can managed in the outpatient setting. This work setting is usually an office environment.
As a counselor you provide an important perspective as someone who is trusted and knowledgeable about your client, yet also outside of the dynamics common in a personal relationship.
People who are receiving treatment for addiction are usually given regular drug tests as part of their treatment. Drug tests may include urinalysis or breathalyzers depending on the client’s needs and the treatment setting. The counselor often reviews these results in counseling sessions with the client. If the client continues to test positive for substances it might indicate that they need a different level of care. If they continue to test negative for substances, this can be a cause for celebration with the client.
Many people in addiction treatment lack positive supports and understanding from others in their life, so their counselor can play an important role. Even when people do have many sources of positive support, the counseling relationship is a unique one. As a counselor you provide an important perspective as someone who is trusted and knowledgeable about your client, yet also outside of the dynamics common in a personal relationship.
In the world of mental health treatment, substance use and addictions counseling tend to be separate from mental health counseling. While more treatment settings are moving towards integrating the 2, the requirements and career options for addiction professionals can be very different from those of mental health.
What do I need to be an addictions counselor?
Working as a counselor might seem easy. On television and in films, this job is often portrayed as listening to someone talk and collecting a hefty fee. It is also common to think counseling involves giving people advice. In reality, there are a multitude of different skills and personal qualities that go into being a counselor. They include:
It is important to be nonjudgmental and not place your own personal values onto your clients. The person coming to you for help needs to know that they can trust you and they may tell you things that you personally disagree with or that go against your own moral values. You need to be able to put those aside and provide the same level of care as you would to someone you better align with.
It is important to be open minded. Working in addiction treatment might bring up things that are very different from what you were taught about drugs growing up. For example, you may have been taught that addiction is a choice or that people can stop using if they were strong enough. It can seem strange to positively acknowledge someone who is still using drugs, but are using less, and that this is a personal victory for them. We are always learning and not everyone is on the same level or from the same backgrounds, so being open minded is key.
Clients may also become angry or upset for a variety of reasons. When people are coming in for a session, they may be under extreme stress. In the substance use treatment setting they may be suffering from withdrawal, or they may be under the influence. You may be telling someone something they don’t want to hear, and they may take their anger at themselves out on you. You will need to remain professional and possibly help to deescalate challenging dynamics.
Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy involves feeling badly for someone. Empathy involves taking on the perspective of another person. It goes deeper than sympathy and requires that you are seeing the world from the lens of your client and that of your own. Having empathy is closely linked to all of the other traits and is at the heart and soul of the counseling profession.
Counselors also need to have good organization and time management skills to be sure everyone is getting the level of care that they should. They need to have good active listening skills so that clients feel heard and understood. Being a counselor requires a lot of yourself within your employment role. It is not a good fit for someone who is just wanting a job for income or wanting to work in an office setting. There are easier ways to obtain those goals.
Wanting to fix people makes the job centered around you and counseling involves helping people recognize the strengths and tools within themselves.
Counseling is also not a good fit for someone who wants to “save” or “rescue” other people. Wanting to fix people makes the job centered around you and counseling involves helping people recognize the strengths and tools within themselves. This is actually a good thing because counselors do not have magic wands, and counseling works best when clients are invested and putting forth effort towards their goals.
What is a bachelor’s degree in counseling?
A bachelor’s degree in counseling is similar to a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At the undergraduate level both degrees are typically a bachelor of arts (B.A.) or a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree with majors in counseling, psychology, or a combination of courses that stem from both fields.
Common career prospects with a bachelor’s degree are entry level positions that include becoming a probation officer, health education specialist, community health worker, or social and human service assistant.
Do I need a master’s degree to work as an addiction counselor?
The clients an addiction counselor works with come with more issues than simply regular excessive drinking or drug imbibing. Typically, there are reasons behind their addictions, and consequences caused by their addictions that necessitate intervention by a counselor with the required skills and knowledge.
It is common for people to suffer from addiction because they are self-medicating underlying mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. Treating the substance use is often the first step on the path to recovery. This is because if someone is actively drinking or using drugs, they are not in the state of mind to work on mental health related goals. If a substance use counselor suspects mental health issues or determines they should be added to the treatment plan, they can help provide referrals and work as part of the client’s treatment team. They cannot formally assess, diagnose, or directly treat the co-occurring disorder.
In fact, until they obtain a master’s level license, alcohol and drug counselors cannot open their own private practice.
A master’s degree in counseling, psychology or social work is the minimum education required to provide talk therapy services and assessment for mental health disorders. Certified alcohol and drug counselors cannot diagnose or treat mental health disorders. In fact, until they obtain a master’s level license, alcohol and drug counselors cannot open their own private practice.
If your goal is to work as a mental health counselor, starting your career as a drug and alcohol counselor can be a great way to gain related experience and earn income while you continue your education. As substance abuse counseling and mental health counseling overlap, experience as a drug and alcohol counselor can be an advantage because you may have experience and knowledge that then meets the needs mental health agencies are looking for.
The next step: certification
With the appropriate training and education, you can become a certified alcohol and drug counselor. The requirements and the different certification levels offered depend upon the standards set by the state licensing board. Some schools offer programs specific to alcohol and drug counseling and are intentionally designed to meet the board requirements for certification within the state the school is located in. Degrees in psychology or social work are common and often meet the requirements to become a certified counselor. Other human service degrees can also lead to certification if you have taken the proper courses such as abnormal psychology, statistics, and interviewing techniques.
The exact name of the certification and required education can vary by state, but there are some general things you can expect. After earning your degree, you can apply to the state board to obtain a trainee status. This shows that you have completed the required coursework and now need to accrue clinical hours in the workplace setting. Employers usually help to guide you through this process because they need to be listed with the board as your supervisor. In this situation, your supervisor is telling the board they assume responsibility for checking your work with clients.
After completing your degree and obtaining required clinical hours, you can apply to take your state exam and earn your certification.
The application for trainee status commonly involves a full background check including fingerprinting and a copy of your transcripts to ensure you have taken the appropriate courses. The trainee application costs an average of $150, and this does not include the cost of fingerprinting. Sometimes the trainee applications are denied because applicants are missing required courses. To save yourself this complication, if you are unsure if your courses meet state requirements you can request the board audit your transcript for a much lower fee.
It can be confusing to see job advertisements asking for certifications you don’t have yet because you need work experience to get those certifications. Some states require you to have a supervisor listed as part of your trainee status application. This makes for a difference in how a job search is usually conducted, but employers in the substance use field are usually aware that you need to have a job offer with someone signing on to be your supervisor in this beginning stage, so apply anyway.
After completing your degree and obtaining required clinical hours, you can apply to take your state exam and earn your certification. In addition to topics related to substance use treatment, these exams usually cover your knowledge of state regulations. Certification as a drug and alcohol counselor still requires that you are working under a clinical supervisor.
Earning your certification can result in a pay increase. There are also some positions available to individuals with full certification such as leading particular groups that require that specific certification to facilitate them. Note that a master’s degree is required to open your own practice.
When you are new to exploring a career as an addiction counselor, the language can be confusing. For example, although the common term is “alcohol and drug counselor” you may also treat other addictions like gambling disorders. The terms supervision and supervised can be confusing too. The exact terminology used will depend on your state. Here are the breakdowns of some of the different levels of certification and related terms.
Certified Supervised Alcohol and Drug Counselor
This is a common title for those who have an associate degree that included courses related to drug and alcohol counseling such as addictions treatment delivery, pharmacology, and abnormal psychology. Some programs require an internship that specifically has to take place in an addiction treatment setting.
Certified Associate Alcohol and Drug Counselor
This is a common title for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a human service-related field such as social work, psychology, or addiction. Certification at this level usually pays more than the CSAD level. An internship specific to addiction may be required. Some states require less clinical hours before you can sit for your certification exam compared to the associate degree level.
Certified Addictions Counselor
This term may also be used just like the supervised or associate drug and alcohol counselor certification mentioned above. It depends on the state you are in, but it also involves completing coursework, internships and exams related to addiction. This usually indicates an undergraduate level of education. You may also see titles such as “CAC-I” if the state designates all addictions counselors by that title, and the number that follows pertains to the level of education the certificate holder has completed.
Differences in the day-to-day job duties of a certified supervised alcohol and drug counselor and that of a certified associate level counselor are limited. They both meet individually with clients providing counseling services, complete required paperwork, participate in treatment team meetings and facilitate counseling groups.
The term supervised can be confusing because of what supervision means in the counseling setting. Both levels require ongoing supervision to provide counseling services. The newer you are, the more involved supervision is. Your supervisor may sometimes sit in on your session or group, but this is not a common or ongoing expectation. Supervision commonly involves meeting with your supervisor once a week for one hour. They will be reviewing your documentation including your treatment plans and clinical notes after you meet with clients. The exact details of this can vary based on the agency and what programs and guidelines they follow. This supervision time is also a place for you to ask questions and get input regarding your clients from someone who is more experienced. Your supervisor should be there to help you and provide you with needed supports. They usually have paperwork to sign on your behalf for you to document that you are getting the clinical hours you need for the board.
Peer Recovery SpecialistsMedian salary: $33K
A peer recovery specialist is someone who has at least a high school diploma, personal experience with addiction, and who is now in long term recovery. They work in rehabs, hospitals, and community settings. While not a counselor, they often provide clients with empathy, understanding, and hope for their recovery by sharing their story and experiences.
Peer specialists often run educational or support groups and help clients get connected with needed resources. They may take clients to recovery-based meetings for additional support and accountability. They obtain continuing education hours to earn and maintain their peer recovery certification. These requirements can vary by state. You can investigate your state’s requirements here.
Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug CounselorMedian salary: $63K
A licensed alcohol and drug counselor has completed at least a master’s degree in counseling or a related field. They are also required to complete a supervised internship to obtain their clinical hours. On average this takes 2-3 years after graduating with their master’s degree. They also complete a background check and take exams for state boards. Unlike certified alcohol and drug counselors, licensed counselors may be able to treat any co-occurring mental health disorders. They can work as counselors alongside certified counselors as peers. They may also be supervisors, clinical directors or have their own practice.
The need for counselors is growing. More people are reaching out for services due to increased awareness of mental health needs and reduced stigma. The average hourly payrate is $22.91, although this varies greatly based on education and experience. Entry level counselors in training can expect less while they obtain their clinical hours. Fully licensed counselors can make much more based on insurance reimbursements or private pay fees. Substance abuse counselors rank as one of the best social service jobs due to the projected job growth and low unemployment in this field
What is the job outlook for addiction counselors?
The future job prediction for addiction counselors is positive with the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) predicting a 23% growth between 2020-2030.
How much do addiction counselors earn?
According to BLS, the annual median salary in 2020 for addiction counselors was $47,660.
Should I get a master’s in counseling?
If your goal is to work independently and even open your own practice, then the answer to this question is a definite yes. While you can work as an addiction counselor in some states without a degree, this is not the norm. In addition, better employment and salary options typically come with a graduate degree.