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. View article »

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  • 1:04 Complete Educational…
  • 2:21 Earn Practicum Hours
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Video Transcript

Certified Drug Counselor Overview

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 must have strong people, speaking, and listening skills, compassion and patience. They might have to work with many clients at once, and night or weekend shifts are sometimes required.

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 $39,980 (May 2015 median annual salary substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors)

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

Let's explore the steps required to become a certified drug counselor.

Step 1: Complete Educational Requirements

Depending on the state and setting in which a counselor wants to practice, earning a high school diploma, passing an exam, and completing a set number of supervised experience might be sufficient for state certification. Some national certifications, however, require an undergraduate or graduate degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or a related field. Also, those aspiring to work in private practice must have at least a master's degree. Coursework on the postsecondary level typically covers 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 also are generally included.

Taking elective courses, like 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.

Additionally, logging volunteer hours at a hospital or substance abuse center can provide a student with first-hand experience and exposure to the kinds of people drug counselors work with on a daily basis.

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Step 2: Earn Practicum Hours

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

Step 3: Earn Licensure of Certification

Once required education and practicum counseling hours are completed, an aspiring drug counselor might have to take a state licensure or certification exam. Most states require that licensure or certification be renewed every two years.

Step 4: Consider National Certification

Drug counselors might enhance their career options by acquiring voluntary national certification, which demonstrates commitment and experience leels. The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals offers three levels of certification for addiction counselors. The first level, 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.

Continuing education through courses or seminars can help a drug counselor stay current on industry trends and advances, and might be required to renew certification. Additionally, joining a professional organization, such as NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals can provide a drug counselor with a variety of continuing education options as well as other benefits, like insurance coverage and discounts on re-certification, education, and training costs.

In summary, the required education for drug counselors varies by state and desired employment setting. State licensure or certification might be required and voluntary national certification is available.

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