Certified Substance Abuse Counselors: Job Outlook & Career Info

Explore the work responsibilities of a certified substance abuse counselor. Learn about academic and licensing requirements in addition to necessary skills, job outlook and salary to determine if this is the right career for you.

Career Definition

Counselors help clients understand the nature of substance abuse and modify their addictive behaviors to break the cycles of dependence. Professionals in substance abuse counseling and therapy also work with friends and family of addicted individuals. Certified substance abuse counselors are in much demand in nursing, health care, psychology, social work, criminal justice, college counseling and youth services.

How to Become a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor

Education Information

Most states require certified substance abuse counselors to have a master's degree in counseling, undergo two years of supervised clinical experience and pass either a National Certified Counselor exam or a state-administered exam. Certified substance abuse counselors are often licensed by a different agency than other counselors. Candidates should check with state and local governments and national certification organizations to determine which requirements might meet their career goals. A few states will license high school graduates upon completion of a 12-month program, but job opportunities are restricted. Some employers offer on-the-job training, or assist interested candidates in obtaining a master's degree.

Skills Needed

Certified substance abuse counselors should have a strong desire to help people and be able to inspire the respect and confidence of others. Counseling is stressful for the counselor as well as the client, so considerable physical and emotional resilience is needed. Counselors are expected to adhere to a formal code of ethics and pursue a program of continuing education.

Economic Outlook

The median salary for substance abuse counselors was $38,520 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), www.bls.gov. There were over 89,000 jobs in 2012, and job opportunities are predicted to grow much faster than other occupations from 2012-2022. Many certified substance abuse counselors work for the government, health care agencies, or therapeutic communities caring for people undergoing treatment for addictions.

Alternative Careers

Social Worker

For those who desire the ability to utilize community resources in addition to providing counseling services to individuals with addictions and other problems, becoming a social worker may be a good option. Social workers determine physical and emotion needs, create plans and programs to meet those needs, help clients apply for local and federal benefits, intervene during crisis situations, and evaluate the progress and success of assistance given. Clinical social workers are also able to offer mental health counseling.

A bachelor's degree in social work will open up the door in acquiring a direct-service position at a government agency. However, most jobs that include counseling will require a master's degree and state licensure. The BLS projected a 19% increase in job opportunities for social workers between 2012 and 2022. In 2012, mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a median yearly wage of $39,980, as stated by the BLS.


If a career involving more advanced, scientific-based mental health treatment sounds interesting, consider becoming a psychologist. Psychologists identify emotional and mental problems, utilize scientific techniques to gather data, explore practical ways to change or overcome behavior and help clients implement strategies to improve their lives. Some psychologists study the biological processes of the brain and conduct research to better understand human behavior and interaction.

Psychologists involved with research or mental health counseling must first earn a doctorate degree in the field and complete a specified amount of clinical training. Most psychologists are also required to obtain a license from the state in which they work. Almost 19,000 new jobs will be created for psychologists during the 2012-2022 decade, and the BLS also estimates that counseling, school and clinical psychologists received a median annual salary of $67,650 in 2012.

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