Becoming a Certified Addiction Counselor

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Substance abuse counseling is an important field, and therefore we need to ensure that it meets a certain level of quality. In this lesson, we'll talk about the career path of for addiction counselors, as well as reasons they might attain additional certifications.

Addiction Counseling

The first step is admitting there is a problem. This is true of substance abuse recovery for individuals, as well as for us as a society. There is a problem with substance abuse and addiction. Now, that this first step is out of the way, how do we go about addressing the problem? A substance abuse counselor, sometimes called an addiction counselor, is a trained professional in the field of mental health who specializes in addiction and substance abuse related issues.

Drug abuse is a problem in the United States, as depicted in the rates of drug use by state

This field arises from the belief that people with substance addictions aren't bad people; they are simply sick in the way that someone with depression is unable to fully function at a normal level. The substance abuse counselor is responsible for identifying the root of an addiction, developing coping strategies with the individual, and well as working with families to promote overall mental health and stability. So, now that you know it's a noble profession, it's time to talk about getting there.

The Career Path

So, you want to become a substance abuse counselor. Where do you start? The first step is to check with your state licensing requirements, as each state has its own rules. While parts of this process may change by state, here are some rough guidelines to get you started.


In general, the first step is to get a degree in counseling, psychology, or a closely-related field. Different states will, however, require different levels of education. Some only require an associate's degree, but most require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Specializing in substance abuse will make you more marketable in the job field. It is recommended, however, that you continue on for a master's degree in drug, alcohol, or clinical counseling. A master's degree may greatly increase career opportunities and salary, as well as give you more guided training. For those who really want to stand out, or those who want to continue improving after working for a while, there are many PhD programs available for substance abuse counselors as well.

Supervised Training

Before most states will license you to work on your own, you will also have to spend a minimum number of hours in supervised practice. Master's and doctoral degrees will almost always include this as part of their curriculum, while bachelor's degrees often encourage it through internships. This practice is important because it gives you hands-on experience working with actual people, but is still guided by an experienced professional.

Background Check

People who are seeking substance abuse help tend to be in very vulnerable places in their lives, so we want to ensure they are safe. A felony background and child abuse background check is an easy way to weed out candidates who could potentially abuse their position. Having a criminal record does not automatically exclude you from this career, but you will have to demonstrate that it will not impact your ability to safely treat someone for a mental health issue.

Licensing and Certification

After getting a degree, working for a number of supervised clinical hours, and passing a background check, there's just one hurdle left: licensing. Each state in the USA (as well as Washington D.C.) requires a state license to practice in any field of mental health, including substance abuse counseling. The purpose of this license is to ensure high-quality and consistent treatment of mental health issues.

Licenses and certifications actually come in two kinds: mandatory and voluntary. State licenses, generally referred to as Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor credentials, are required if you want to practice in that state.

Beyond this, there are voluntary certifications. Now, going through the tests and requirements for a license is hassle enough, so why would you want to do this voluntarily? Professional organizations offer voluntary certifications to create networks of colleagues that all adhere to a high standard of quality. In this case, anybody who passes a voluntary certification demonstrates that they are capable of very high-quality and standardized counseling for prevention, intervention, and treatment of substance abuse.

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