Becoming a Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor

If addiction has touched your life in some way, either through a friend or loved one, you may have considered becoming a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. People who are in recovery from addiction themselves often feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to all who helped them overcome their addiction, and they want to give back by helping others who are struggling through a similar crisis in their lives.

Watching a friend or loved one battle addiction may bring you in contact with a treatment facility for family outreach sessions. When you see all the comfort and healing that goes on inside these facilities, it is easy to want to become part of that. Addiction treatment saves lives in so many ways — it is a very powerful experience for all involved.

drug addiction recovery

Treatment facilities and outpatient programs for addiction recovery exist now in almost every community. There are a number of different treatment modalities available to clients to address their specific needs. All of these programs require staff with various levels of training and familiarity with a number of different type of therapies. The field of addiction treatment is growing as our understanding evolves.

There are a number of reasons to become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. No matter what interest draws you to the field, there will be plenty of job options available for you once you get the proper education. New modalities of treatment are still being developed, presenting possibilities for further training and career development all the time.

What Do Substance Abuse Counselors Do?

Substance abuse counselors work with people who are suffering from addiction. Addiction is a complicated concept that is primarily emotional and behavioral. People struggling to recover from addiction wrestle with deep-seated and often long-neglected emotional issues related to past traumas. They often find that their addiction was covering up an underlying mental illness that went undiagnosed and untreated.

Treating addiction also means dealing with behavioral issues. It is not easy to change one’s behaviors, but it is possible through different types of behavioral therapy. Therapy seeks to affect thought patterns that motivate behavior. When the thought patterns are examined and altered, the behaviors usually follow.

These behavioral issues and mental illnesses affect the way an addict interacts with the world around him. In addition to working with the addict to make the necessary changes to live a healthy life, the substance abuse counselor also helps them heal their relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Every aspect of life is affected by addiction, and a drug abuse counselor works with clients in all areas.

life affected by addiction

Training and Education for Substance Abuse Counselors

If you want to work in an addiction treatment program, there are different positions available based on your education and training. You may choose to begin with an entry-level position based on a minimum amount of education and then work your way up. It is also possible to get all the education and training you need to enter the field at one of the highest levels of certification.

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) sets the national standard for education and training of addiction professionals. They established these three levels of certification:

National Certification Addiction Counselor, Level 1 (NCACI)

Similar to an internship, this basic level of certification demonstrates skills gained in addiction counseling through supervised work experience. The educational requirements for this level of certification are low because it relies on supervision in the workplace and actual work experience. With the demand for substance abuse counselors expected to grow by 22% by 2024, it should be easy to get an entry-level position and start working toward your NCACI certification right away.

demand for drug abuse counselors

Requirements for Eligibility

  • At least a high school diploma or GED
  • A current license as an Addiction Counselor in your state
  • Three years of full-time supervised work experience, the equivalent of 6,000 hours
  • Education and training in counseling subjects totaling at least 270 hours of contact time
  • NCACI exam with a passing score

National Certification Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCACII)

The NCACII certification is for people with a college degree. You can either start at NCACI and build up your education to obtain this higher certification, or, if you already have a Bachelor’s Degree, you can begin your certification at this level.

Requirements for Eligibility

  • A Bachelor’s Degree in social work, psychology, mental health counseling or a related field
  • A current license as an Addiction Counselor in your state
  • Five years of full-time supervised work experience totaling 10,000 hours
  • Classroom training in Substance Abuse Disorders of at least 450 contact hours
  • NCACII exam with a passing score

Master Addiction Counselor With Co-Occurring Disorders Component (MAC)

By adding a Master’s Degree and additional coursework, you can obtain the highest level of certification from the National Certification Commission of Addiction Professionals. This would mean a big advancement in your addiction counseling career, and it would open up opportunities for more independent practice.

Requirements for Eligibility

  • A Master’s Degree in a field related to psychology, mental health or social work
  • A current Substance Abuse Counselor license from your state
  • Supervised experience as a Substance Abuse Counselor for at least three years or 6,000 hours
  • 500 hours of classroom training, including ethics and HIV-specific training
  • MAC exam with a passing score

drug addiction counselors

Addiction professionals are in a field that is regulated at the state level. Each level of NCAC certification requires a state license, and the qualifications of that license vary by state. Most states ask for proof of your education, some type of training courses or apprenticeship and a state exam. You will have to check with your state’s professional licensing bureau to find out exactly what is required of you.

At the most basic level, it is possible to begin working in an addiction counseling program rather quickly. You may only qualify for an assistant counselor position at first, but with a couple years of work and training, your career as a substance abuse counselor can progress easily.

Substance Abuse Counselor Training Program

At every level of certification, additional training is needed to advance as a substance abuse counselor. Training is available in various forms, starting with the supervision and oversight you receive on the job. For the first several years in the field of counseling, you will work under the guidance of someone with more advanced credentials than yourself. You will learn by working alongside a more experienced counselor, as an assistant at first. Then, you may begin taking on a more independent role, but always with someone you can rely on for help and guidance.

drug abuse counselor

This sort of on-the-job training is a great way to learn about substance abuse counseling because it is a diverse field. The experience you get working with clients supplements and reinforces the formal training you have to do to achieve the next level of certification.

For the required classwork, you will have several options. Substance abuse training programs are available online and in a variety of different settings in most communities. The specific courses you take can be tailored toward the area of counseling you would like to specialize in. Addiction occurs in most populations and often co-exists with other mental illnesses. You may find it interesting to focus your practice on female clients or teenagers, for instance.

Online courses make it more convenient to complete your classroom training while working in the field. In-person classes are important, too, however, and some are required by the NCAC. They set minimum standards for the number of hours of coursework that must be completed in a traditional classroom setting. Most employers are willing to work with you to get these courses scheduled around your work schedule.

The NCAC also requires that your coursework include a certain number of hours in specific areas like ethics. This is a standard requirement for many professional programs. The industry feels it is important to include a study of ethics in order to be fully qualified for certification. Ethics courses are available in any substance abuse counselor training program you choose.

Do You Need a Degree to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

It is not necessary to have a college degree to begin working as a drug abuse counselor. With just a high school diploma or graduate equivalency diploma, you can obtain a license and begin working in the field. The training that you take will be related to your counseling job and give you the education you need to be effective.

how to become a drug addiction counselor

For some people, working as an alcohol abuse counseling assistant is satisfying enough, but if you want to advance to a higher position, you will need a college degree. Getting a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology or a related field will give you more knowledge that you can directly apply to your work in substance abuse counseling.

The additional knowledge will make it possible for you to do more advanced work as a counselor. You will still work under the supervision of a more experienced counselor, but you will be able to direct sessions and have more contact with clients. Some people feel that achieving this higher level of knowledge allows them to be even more helpful to people suffering from addiction.

As the needs of the clients become more involved, you may wish to develop more skills for working with them. Often, addiction presents with another underlying mental illness that needs to be treated. The modern theory is that it is essential to treat co-existing conditions simultaneously for the best outcome. Treating a dual diagnosis is a specialty that requires additional study and experience to master.

A Masters’ Degree is necessary to obtain NCAC certification to treat co-existing mental illnesses. Not everyone is interested in taking their career in substance abuse counseling to this level. It takes additional time and training to achieve this specialty. Working in the field, you will get an idea of what area of substance abuse counseling interests you the most. If it is treating dual diagnoses, then you will need to get a Master’s Degree.

As you pursue your career in counseling, you can decide what level of education is right for you based on your desires for career development.

Are There Jobs in Substance Abuse Counseling?

Of course, drug and alcohol addiction were recognized decades ago, and with that, attempts to treat these ailments were developed. In recent decades, more modern knowledge of what addiction is and how the brain functions have led to innovative forms of therapy for people suffering with addiction.

Recent decades have also brought about an abundance of new medications, many of which can be highly addictive. Medications that are available without a prescription even hold the possibility of addiction, so access to addictive substances has increased.

Also, the sophistication of illegal drug production and trafficking operations has increased in recent decades, making it more likely for people to come into contact with potentially addictive substances. This combination of increased access to drugs and a greater recognition of addiction as a disease has given rise to the number of treatment programs.

addiction numbers

The number of Americans suffering from addiction is at 23.5 million and rising. The need for treatment programs grows every day, and qualified substance abuse counselors are needed to run these programs. Substance abuse counseling is a growing field with many career opportunities.

In 2014, there were 94,900 jobs for drug and alcohol abuse counselors. As mentioned earlier, that number is expected to increase by 22% by 2024, which is considered faster than average. In fact, this is one of the fastest growing fields today and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

drug addiction counselor

Modern advances in psychology are creating a diversity of addiction rehab programs, which allows for career flexibility in substance abuse counseling. Inpatient programs, where clients live at the facility for several weeks or several months, are just one type of work environment. Working in an inpatient program might allow for more intense, personalized contact with clients. In most of these programs, you would work in a team with other professionals focused on helping clients rebuild all aspects of their lives.

Inpatient programs may provide opportunities to learn and practice alternative therapy modalities. These programs generally offer their clients an array of treatment options to address their specific needs. You could end up working with experienced professionals who are using the latest ideas in addiction rehab. Trying new things and seeing different successes might be an interesting part of your career development.

Inpatient programs usually include follow-up care for people as they transition from rehab to home to continue their recovery. The career opportunities there would include family counseling, group sessions and relapse avoidance strategies. Some of these follow-up programs take place off of the rehab facility’s campus in various community settings.

Working in a community setting might include substance abuse counseling in an outpatient addiction rehab program. Substance abuse counselors also work in hospitals and more traditional medical environments. They could concentrate on crisis intervention and program intake, or they may work with clients who are much further along in their recovery and focusing on maintenance issues.

drug abuse counselor

Becoming a substance abuse counselor has a lot of possibilities. The job market in the field is quite large and continuing to grow. The opportunities to help people at different stages of their addiction recovery and in different types of settings makes it an interesting career choice. There is a lot of flexibility to develop your career in substance abuse counseling in ways that are meaningful to you.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

There are a few steps you can take right now to begin your career as a substance abuse counselor:

  • Investigate your state’s regulations for licensing. You will need a state license, so this is a good place to start. Get an application and find out what the fee is to submit your application. It should be a nominal charge, if not free. Obtaining the license will probably take at least a couple weeks after you submit your application, so you’ll want to get that started right away.
  • Decide on how you wish to enter the field of substance abuse counseling. This will be based on the level of education you have already achieved: high school diploma, Bachelor’s Degree or Master’s Degree. Refer to the specific requirements for a certification at the appropriate level from earlier in this article.
  • Research appropriate job opportunities in your community. You’ll want to investigate the various treatment programs in your area where you could potentially work. Reach out to a couple of them to talk about job openings they might have and what their hiring process is. This will help you get a feel for which program you might want to work in or what experienced professional you can see yourself working for.
  • Research training programs both online and in your community. Figure out what your options are for completing the necessary classwork to obtain your certification. Remember that at least some of your training will have to be done in person, so you will need to find the school closest to you that offers counseling training courses.
  • Reach out to people you know who are involved with addiction recovery. Talk to your own counselor or friends or family who are in recovery. Tell them about your desire to enter this field and learn all you can from them. Your friend may put you in touch with their addiction counselor who can tell you how they got their certification. The counselor may even have recommendations for training programs. The more information you can gather, the smoother the transition into this new career.

drug abuse and addiction counselors

Learn More

If you have an interest in becoming a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, contact 12 Keys. We would be happy to answer any questions you have about working in this field. We have years of experience successfully guiding people suffering from addiction to a healthy, happy lifestyle, and we would enjoy sharing our knowledge with you.

Addiction recovery is a growing field, and at 12 Keys, we are always looking for compassionate, qualified professionals to add to our staff. We approach addiction recovery with a holistic approach to healing designed and implemented by our staff, who have extensive training in specific modalities in addition to their basic licenses and certifications.

We proudly offer our clients the most effective treatment modalities available. We constantly assess their progress and adapt their program to suit their changing needs. Thanks to our professional and empathetic staff, 12 Keys has developed a reputation as a premier provider of addiction recovery services. Call us today and let us guide you into your new substance abuse counseling career.

The Addiction Blog