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Substance abuse is a problem that affects not just the abusers but also their families and friends. People with addictions are often multiply diagnosed with mental and physical health problems, from obsessive compulsive disorder to HIV/AIDS, and substance abuse counselors work closely with them to identify reasons for their behavior and to take steps to change and remedy it.

Counselors work in a variety of community settings, such as drug detoxification centers, inpatient drug rehabilitation programs within hospitals and clinics, residential therapeutic communities, half-way houses, correctional institutions, methadone maintenance programs, partial hospitalization or day programs, out-patient counseling programs, and employee assistance programs. Counselors typically work as part of a team of caregivers that needs to be available around-the-clock to patients.

A graduate degree isn’t required to become a substance abuse counselor. Technically, neither is a bachelor’s degree. However, earning a graduate degree speeds up the process of achieving full certification in the student’s state and usually allows for access to a higher pay scale and supervisory positions.

Degree Information

Master’s degrees vary. There are Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) in Substance Abuse, Clinical Counseling with Substance Abuse Focus, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling. Students will most likely want a program certified by Counsel for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), though there is no national standard for what distinguishes a good substance abuse counseling master’s program. Students may also want to pursue general master’s degrees in Community Counseling, psychology, or social work (M.S.W.) and supplement these with a certificate program in substance abuse counseling. Master’s programs are usually one and a half to two years.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • How accessible are faculty members?
  • How much autonomy do students have in customizing their courses of study?
  • What are the theoretical and experiential backgrounds of the faculty?
  • Is their ample diversity among students and staff?
  • Is the school located in a state where you would like to work? This is an important factor, since certification is on a state-by-state basis.

Career Overview

Substance abuse counselors work directly with clients in one-on-one and group sessions. Counselors work in a variety of community settings--from halfway houses to hospitals--and are part of a caregiving team. Often, counselors must be available nights and weekends. In addition to working with patients, counselors may be involved in the administration of their agency or division.

Career/Licensing Requirements

Licensing, or certification, is administered on a state-by-state basis. Each state has different requirements for numbers of hours required to attain the highest level of certification, as well as a different name for one’s title once certified--such as Master Addiction Counselor and Clinical Addiction Specialist.

Salary Information

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average annual salary for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors was approximately $30,000 in 2002. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that government employers generally pay the highest wages for substance abuse counselors, followed by hospitals and social service agencies. Residential care facilities often pay the lowest wages.

Related Links

American Counseling Association
Information for students, including a listserv, and link to Counsel for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Alcohol and Drug Abuse Information
Information about government studies and outreach efforts.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Information and links about substance abuse treatment.


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  • Substance Abuse Counseling