How to Become a Certified Drug Counselor

Learn how to become a certified drug counselor. Research the education and career requirements, training and certification information and experience required for starting a career in substance abuse counseling.

Should I Become a Certified Drug Counselor?

Certified drug counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors, work in hospitals, prisons, drug rehabilitation centers and similar settings to help individuals recover from substance abuse and addiction. They counsel patients and recommend treatment options, help patients develop life skills, work on modifying behavioral patterns and teach patients coping strategies to help ensure recovery. Working with patients who are in the throes of addiction can be quite stressful and sometimes even emotional. Drug counselors may also have to work with many clients at once, and night or weekend shifts are sometimes required.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Varies by state from high school diploma to master's degree
Degree Field Counseling, psychology, social work or related field
Experience Varies based on certification level
Licensure and Certification A state-issued license is required to run a private practice, certification is available at a variety of levels
Key Skills Strong people, speaking and listening skills, compassion and patience
Salary $36,200 per year (2015 median salary for all certified addiction drug and alcohol counselors)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (July 2015)

Step 1: Complete Educational Requirements

Depending on the state and setting in which a counselor wants to practice, a high school diploma along with passing an exam and completing a set number of supervised and practicum hours may be sufficient for state certification. Although, a national credentialing organization may require formal postsecondary education to obtain certification. Educational requirements for higher levels of certification can be earned through a certificate, undergraduate or graduate degree program. However, those looking to work in a private practice must have a master's degree. Postsecondary coursework required for certification may include the study of drug theory and prevention, individual and group counseling and addiction and families. Classes in client management and treatment, record keeping, intake, assessment and crisis intervention are also covered.

Success Tips:

  • Take courses that can improve communication. Taking elective courses such as public speaking can help a student develop and improve his or her communication skills. Since communication is an important element of substance abuse and addiction counseling, it's essential that an aspiring drug counselor is capable of communicating with individuals from diverse backgrounds in a variety of ways.
  • Volunteer. Participating in volunteer hours at a hospital or substance abuse center or facility can provide a student with first-hand experience and exposure to the kinds of people drug counselors work with on a daily basis.

Step 2: Earn Practicum Hours

Besides private practice counseling, requirements for practicum hours varies by state and certification level. However, all states mandate that counselors working in private practices complete 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In most states, supervisors generally evaluate interns on ethical conduct and competency. The ability to implement effective counseling strategies is included in the competency evaluation process.

Step 3: Take a State Certification Exam

Once the required education and practicum counseling hours are completed, students may take a state certification exam. Most states require that certification be renewed every two years in order to keep the certification current.

Step 4: Consider National Certification

Career options may be enhanced by acquiring national certification that demonstrates commitment and experience levels. Three levels of certification for addiction counselors are available through the NAADAC's National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP). The first level of designation, National Certified Addiction Counselor Level 1 (NCAC 1), requires three years of full-time or 6,000 supervised counseling hours. The second level, NCAC II, requires a bachelor's degree and completion of 10,000 hours or five years of full-time supervised drug addiction counseling. The most advanced certification is the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) credential, which requires a master's degree relevant to addiction counseling and three years of full-time or 6,000 hours of supervised experience.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in continuing education. Continuing education through courses or seminars can help a drug counselor stay current on industry trends and advances, and may also be required in order to renew certifications. Continuing education can also help counselors advance to higher levels of certification.
  • Join a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as NAADAC, can provide a drug counselor with a variety of continuing education options as well as other benefits of membership. These include insurance coverage, access to the NAADAC online store and discounts on re-certification, education and training costs.

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