How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

In 2017, 12.5% of all adults in the United States had issues with both drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Over eight million Americans struggled with mental...
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In 2017, 12.5% of all adults in the United States had issues with both drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Over eight million Americans struggled with mental health issues, as well as substance abuse, during that same year.

Studies show that the number of people who are dealing with substance abuse issues is on the rise. Over the 11-year time span ending in 2013, the number of Americans using heroin tripled. There is also clear evidence that substance abuse issues are affecting teenagers in growing numbers.

As of 2019, 24.5% of students in grade eight used alcohol, while 58.5% of grade 12 students drink. There are also growing numbers of students from grades eight through 12 that are vaping and using illicit drugs.

The prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse has created an increasing demand for qualified addiction treatment professionals. These mental health professionals are qualified to provide treatment for individuals who struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction.

Education Requirements


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In some states, it is possible to enter this career field with a high school diploma, but most employers prefer or require their addiction therapists to have an undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline, such as psychology or social work.

Mental health counselors are required to have a master’s degree. Earning a graduate degree after a bachelor’s degree enables these therapists to provide private therapy sessions, as well as lead group therapy.


Individuals preparing to become professional counselors can opt to complete an online counseling psychology degree or complete a degree in a similar discipline, such as social work, social studies or addiction studies. They may take classes in behavioral psychology, group counseling, individual counseling, and family counseling. Individuals also learn about the ethical issues involved in treating addiction. Successfully completing an internship is also required to graduate most programs.

Other Requirements


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Substance abuse counselors must meet the licensing requirements of the state that they work in. Employers look for applicants who have the academic and licensing requirements, as well as specific skills. These therapists need compassion and patience.

Listening skills are crucial because counselors spend much of their time processing what their patients say. Interpersonal skills are also important. It is imperative that these therapists are able to make their patients feel safe and comfortable discussing their issues.

What Substance Abuse Counselors Do

Addiction therapists may specialize in treating individuals with alcoholism or drug addiction. Some may work with individuals who struggle with both alcohol addiction and drug abuse.

In some cases, they may also work with patients who have eating disorders. They provide mental health counseling in a group or private setting. These mental health professionals help their patients learn to deal with stress and manage triggers that can cause them to use substances.

Work Environment


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There is a wide range of employment options for qualified addiction therapists. Some may pursue opportunities with clinics that specialize in drug rehab in Toronto while others may work for family services in a hospital or government facility.

These professional counselors may also be employed by prisons or juvenile detention centers. They may also provide rehab for individuals under probation or on parole. Some counselors primarily provide group counseling while those with a master’s degree may also provide private addiction treatment.

Income and Demand reported that in January 2020, the median annual income for substance abuse counselors in the United States was $53,720. Those in the top 10th percentile for income earned $65,144 per year or more.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the expected job growth rate for substance abuse, behavior disorder and mental health counselors from 2018 to 2028 is 22%, which is more than 4 times the projected average job growth rate for all occupations during the times time period.

Nathan Gardner is a graduate of University of Washington in Seattle. He is a contributing writer for Urban Tulsa, and a freelance writer for several other online publications.