How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor: 5 Steps to Follow

In the words of renowned addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté: “It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behavior.”

Indeed, although viewed by many as a choice, addiction is typically a response to a stressor — such as trauma or mental illness — and not a behavior to be isolated and taken out of context.

Since you’re here, chances are that you understand this, and that you empathize with the millions who struggle with substance use disorders. So, let’s talk about it: here’s everything you need to know about becoming a substance abuse counselor.

What is a substance abuse counselor?

Substance abuse counselors are responsible for providing support and guidance to individuals who struggle with substance use disorders. Oftentimes, however, their work revolves around addiction more broadly, meaning they’re qualified to assist those with other types of addictive behaviors, such as gambling and compulsive eating.

What are the different types of substance abuse counselors?

There are many different paths to becoming a substance abuse counselor. Some of the professionals in this field will be educated to doctorate level, while others will hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees plus certification that has been issued by their local addiction board.

As such, addiction counselors may hold one of the following titles:

  • Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC)
  • Certified Addiction Professional (CAP)
  • Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Of course, licensed psychologists and psychiatrists also often work with patients with substance abuse disorders, even if they haven’t pursued any specific specialization around the topic.

What does a substance abuse counselor do?

Substance abuse counselors have a number of duties, including:

  • Assessing patients’ mental and physical health, determining the severity of the substance use disorder
  • Coming up with a treatment plan, which may involve a combination of methods and interventions such as medical care, rehabilitation programs and group therapy sessions
  • Providing talk therapy to patients (this can be on an individual or group level), as well as the patients’ friends and families where needed
  • Providing documentation such as patient progress reports to law enforcement or court systems

What is the work environment like?

Addiction counselors can find employment in various settings, the most common ones being rehabilitation facilities, correction facilities, hospitals and their own private practices.

Professionals working in private practices tend to spend more of their time facilitating one-on-one talk therapy sessions, occasionally liaising with other colleagues when their patients require access to external resources and support.

Substance abuse counselors who work in clinics and centers are bound to have more “social” work lives, sharing the space with fellow healthcare professionals and other workers.

How many hours do they work?

Most mental health counselors, including those who specialize in substance abuse counseling, work full time.

Just like their working environments can vary, though, their working hours can vary too. For example, self-employed professionals working out of private practices can decide their own schedule, while those working in centers and hospitals may work evening shifts, night shifts and on weekends.

In some cases, they may also respond to emails, calls or messages outside their working hours, if a patient is in crisis.

How much do they earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey, substance abuse counselors take home a mean annual income of $60,080. That is an hourly rate of $28.89.

The lowest 10th percentile earns an annual wage of $36,700, while the highest 10th percentile makes about $89,920 a year.

The top five highest-paying states for substance abuse counselors are:

  • Alaska ($77,430/year)
  • Utah ($70,310/year)
  • District of Columbia ($67,750/year)
  • New Jersey ($67,250/year)
  • New York ($67,240/year)

In a snapshot:

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary

What is their job outlook?

As of 2022, there have been around 388,200 substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in employment in the US, according to the BLS Employment Projections survey. By 2032, the number is expected to rise to 459,600, a percentage change of 18.4% over the 10-year period.

Of these counselors, 8.4% are self-employed, a figure that’s expected to grow to 9.2% by 2032.

The anticipated growth of this profession is in line, sadly, with the nation’s worsening mental health crisis. Indeed, over recent years, more and more people (including children) have been reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, and the number of drug overdose deaths has risen dramatically.

What are the entry requirements?

We’ve seen what addiction counselors do, how much they earn and what their work environment is like. Now, let’s talk about what it takes to become one:


The requirements for practicing this profession vary by state. However, most substance abuse counselors complete at least an undergraduate degree program in a related subject such as psychology.

Some states also require aspiring counselors to hold a relevant master’s degree.

Skills and qualities

Addiction counselors work with people who are vulnerable, and must therefore possess the following skills and qualities:

  • Empathy
  • Strong communication skills, including active listening
  • Integrity
  • Confidentiality
  • Stress management
  • A genuine desire to help others in need

Licenses, certifications and registrations

Your employer and the state you end up practicing your profession in will influence the licensure and certification you’ll need.

To become licensed, you will typically need to pass some type of exam, such as the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium’s Alcohol and Drug Counselor Examination.

Do you have what it takes?

Working as a licensed addiction counselor is undoubtedly a rewarding profession, one that allows you to make a real, visible difference in people’s lives. At the same time, it is a demanding profession that comes with tremendous responsibility, which can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion.

Before committing to this career path (or any career path, for that matter), you may want to assess your work motivators, strengths, career interests and different types of reasoning so that you make an informed decision.

Our own career-matching platform, CareerHunter, comprises six assessments that can provide you with the insights you need to identify your dream profession.

Steps to become a substance abuse counselor

If you want to become a mental health professional specializing in substance abuse counseling, you will typically need to follow these five steps:

Step 1: Finish your high school education

Working as a licensed substance abuse counselor is normally preceded by several years of studying at university level. Finishing your high school education, therefore, will provide a solid foundation for the years to come.

Most colleges also accept the General Education Diploma in place of a high school diploma for student admission. If necessary, your GED can also be completed online through the GED Live program, created by the GED Testing Service together with Kaplan Test Prep

Step 2: Earn your bachelor’s degree

Although the education requirements for counselors vary by state, in most cases you’re going to need to complete a bachelor’s degree in a subject like psychology, social work or counseling.

These majors are designed to equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge to enroll in a more specialized graduate degree, where you can focus on a specific subject like treating substance use disorders.

Step 3: Earn your postgraduate degree

Mental health counselors, regardless of specialization, typically need a master’s degree to become licensed and be allowed to practice. These graduate degrees commonly include a clinically supervised practicum, preparing students for the demanding, high-stakes profession of addiction counselor.

Graduate degrees in substance abuse counseling take two to three years to complete. Courses tend to delve into topics like psychopathology, case management, assessment methods, group counseling and counseling ethics.

Step 4: Apply for licensure and/or certification

State requirements for substance abuse counselors vary, so it’s important to know what the criteria are for the area you intend to work in. Completing a certain number of academic hours and practicum hours, and passing an exam are the most common requirements to become certified.

Substance abuse counselors working in private practices must also be licensed. Similarly, the steps to acquiring licensure will vary somewhat depending on location, though all states require you to hold a master’s degree and to have completed a specific number of work experience hours under the supervision of a licensed counselor.

Step 5: Maintain an active license

Addiction counselors are required to maintain an active license for as long as they practice their profession. The license renewal requirements can vary by state, although they’ll typically entail paying a renewal fee and completing a predetermined number of continuing education hours as indicated by the state board.

Best practices and regulations in the field of psychology keep on evolving, so CE is vital in providing effective support to patients and coming up with the most appropriate plan for treatment.

Frequently asked questions

We talked about a lot of things so far, so you may have some questions. Let’s look at a few frequently asked ones!

Q: How long does it take to become a substance abuse counselor?

Typically, it takes between 6–8 years to become an addiction counselor. This time is spent on completing an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and supervised work experience.

Q: Are there any online addiction counseling degrees?

Yes, many universities offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs that can be completed online, including the University of South Dakota, the University of Cincinnati and Arizona State University.

Q: Do I have to complete a supervised internship?

In the majority of cases, completing an internship under the supervision of a licensed professional is a requirement for working as a substance abuse counselor.

For counselors in private practice, specifically, completing an internship is non-negotiable, regardless of where they live.

Final thoughts

According to the American Addiction Centers, 16.7% of Americans aged 12 and over (that’s nearly 47 million people) struggled with a substance use disorder in 2022. Knowing that substance abuse is a problem affecting countless people, including children, can be quite unsettling.

For those determined to help, though, these statistics only serve as additional motivation for striving to make a difference in the lives of many.

Can you see yourself working as an addiction counselor, now that you’re a little more familiar with what it entails? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section!

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on March 19, 2018.

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