Substance Abuse Counselor: Training Requirements and Career Options

Substance Abuse Counselor: Training Requirements and Career Options Transcript

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a substance abuse counselor. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about schooling, job duties and licenses to find out if this is the career for you.

The requirements for a career as a substance abuse counselor vary for each state. In some places it is possible to pursue a career with a certificate, diploma, or associate's degree, while other states may require a bachelor's or master's degree. Substance abuse counselors may need to be licensed or certified, which also depends on the state they're working in.

Essential Information

Substance abuse counselors offer supportive, educational and counseling services to those who struggle with addictions to drugs and alcohol. These counseling professionals work in a variety of contexts and assist addicts in gaining and maintaining sobriety. Substance abuse counselors can come from a variety of educational backgrounds. However, those in private practice do require a master's degree and state certification.

Required Education Varies from high school diploma or GED to master's degree
Other Requirements Some positions require a master's degree and clinical experience; some states require a license
Mean Annual Wage (2015)* $42,920 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 22% for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Substance Abuse Counselor Training Requirements

The requirements to become a substance abuse counselor vary according to state law. In some places, these counselors may hold only diplomas, certificates or associate's degrees in substance abuse counseling, which are available through vocational schools and community colleges. In many states, substance abuse counselors must hold master's degrees before becoming licensed to offer services to the public. Aspiring substance abuse counselors may also need to complete a specified number of work hours under the supervision of licensed or certified professionals as part of their educational programs.

Licensing and Certification

Some states require substance abuse counselors to be licensed, while others require these counselors to hold certification through recognized professional certifying organizations. Each state has its own regulations regarding the recognition of certifying organizations. Similarly, each certifying organization has its own requirements for certification. Some organizations require significant academic preparation, such as the completion of graduate coursework, prior to permitting a candidate to sit for a certifying exam. Substance abuse counselors may also need to complete continuing education coursework in the area of addictions counseling to maintain licensure or certification.

Substance Abuse Counselor Career Options

Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of settings and may advance into supervisory or even management roles. Those who hold graduate degrees will usually have the most flexibility in choosing career paths and may experience the best prospects for advancement.

Community Counseling Centers

Many community organizations sponsor mental health clinics and outpatient substance abuse programs. In these settings, substance abuse counselors provide counseling and assessment services to adults, youth and groups of people who suffer from drug addiction or alcohol dependency. These counselors may also coordinate outreach programs aimed at informing the public of and preventing substance abuse.

Inpatient Treatment

Substance abuse counselors also work in hospitals, rehab centers and halfway houses. Counselors in these locations may help facilitate support groups as well as work with individual patients and their families. They often work closely with doctors and nurses to establish and carry out treatment plans.

Private Practice

With experience, substance abuse counselors may go on to start their own private counseling practices. They might also start a group practice with other counselors. Being self-employed allows counselors a great deal of freedom in structuring their practices.


Experienced substance abuse counselors, particularly those who hold graduate degrees, may advance into administrative positions. They might go on to work as managers or directors of treatment programs. Along with overseeing treatment programs, these professionals may help counselors maintain licensure or certification by providing them with continuing education resources.

Salary and Career Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors together in their employment statistics. In the decade 2014-2024, these workers can expect faster than average job growth of 22%. The BLS also reported that behavioral disorder and substance abuse counselors earned $42,920 as a mean annual wage in 2015.

Substance abuse counselors can work for community centers or enter private practice. They may also work in hospitals, rehab centers and halfway houses. Those with a graduate degree can also consider advancing to an administrative position, where they will oversee treatment programs and staff.

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