How to Become an Addiction Counselor


Addiction counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors, perform individual and/or group sessions with those who have drug and/or alcohol issues. An addiction counselor often combines 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous with traditional behavioral therapy. It is important to note that an addiction counselor can also treat those with a gambling, hoarding, food and/or exercise addictions, but this article is designed to help you become a drug and alcohol addiction counselor.

If you are interested in becoming an addiction counselor, you will need to fulfill certain educational, certification and/or licensure requirements. This article will teach you everything you need to know to enter the field of addiction counseling.

What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?

As an addiction counselor you may be required to work evenings, nights, holidays and/or weekends. You may also be a part of a triage team that includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, physicians, and/or registered nurses (RNs). In addition, you will probably work for a social service agency, private practice, clinic or hospital.

When you become an addiction counselor, you will not only help your clients recognize their addiction-related triggers, but also teach them how to effectively manage stressful and challenging situations so that they do not feel the need to turn to drugs and/or alcohol when distressed. In addition, you maybe responsible for helping your clients restore their romantic and family relationships, establish or rebuild their careers and improve their self-esteem.

Moreover, you may teach them how to effectively communicate with their family, friends and work associates when they feel stressed. Lastly, one of your main tasks will be to encourage your clients to openly discuss their addiction(s) with those that care about them.

Other tasks that you will perform as an addiction counselor include the following:

  • Assessing your client’s physical and mental health
  • Gauging your client’s openness to treatment
  • Developing a treatment plan for your client
  • Making treatment recommendations
  • Teaching your client communication and coping skills that can help him/her maintain sobriety.
  • Helping your client modify his/her behavior so that he/she does not automatically turn to drugs and/or alcohol when stressed.
  • Helping your client identify addiction-related triggers so that he/she can avoid them.
  • Educating your client’s family on drug and/or alcohol addictions
  • Recommending valuable resources and/or services such as support groups or job placement services.

Where Does an Addiction Counselor Work?

Addiction counselors are employed in a variety of settings. One of the most common places of employment for addiction counselors is substance abuse treatment centers. There are different types of substance abuse treatment centers including inpatient and outpatient facilities.

It’s important to understand, individuals with drug problems are all different. There is not one stereotypical addict. Drug addiction affects people from all walks of life, which means counselors may work with people of all ages, races and educational and social economic backgrounds.

Substance abuse treatment centers are not the only place addiction counselor’s work. Mental health facilities, such as psychiatric hospitals also often employ addiction counselors. Depending on the type of mental health facility, the working environment may present certain challenges. For example, a psychiatric hospital may offer an environment, which includes dealing with chaotic situations and intervening in a crisis.

Addiction counselors also work in juvenile detention centers, prisons and employee assistance programs. Many counselors are employed by non-profit agencies, hospitals and government facilities.

Although it can vary by setting, addiction counselors may work daytime hours or may also be required to work weekends and evenings. Full and part-time opportunities may be available for addiction counselors depending on the setting.

What are the Requirements to Become an Addiction Counselor?

Educational Requirements

Being an addiction counselor requires professional education. Depending on the job requirements and state regulations, educational needs can range from a certificate program of a few weeks all the way up to a PhD, which requires years of education.

Typically, in order to become an addiction counselor you will need to obtain a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree in addiction psychology, sociology or a related field. You may also be required to obtain a master’s degree in psychology or sociology. It is important to note that the more education you have, the more jobs you will be offered.

For instance, if you have a master’s degree in psychology or sociology, you will be able to provide counseling services to your clients, but if you only have a bachelor’s degree you may have to work under a master’s level counselor, psychologist, physician or psychiatrist. Make sure you research your state’s addiction counseling requirements before you choose an undergraduate and graduate counseling program.

Related Reading: How to Become an Addiction Therapist


If you are interested in working in a private practice as an addiction counselor, you will be required to be licensed. You will need to obtain a master’s degree in psychology, sociology or a related field along with approximately 2,500 hours of supervised clinical hours before you will be able to work in this setting.

Furthermore, you will need to successfully pass your counseling licensure exam and fulfill your continued education requirements every 2 to 3 years. Licensure requirements vary from state to state so it is important that you thoroughly research the requirements before scheduling your licensure exam.

What Do You Learn in an Addiction Counseling Degree?

There are both traditional education programs along with online programs that are accredited by the state you wish to work in. But it is important to research the program you wish to take will meet the job or state requirements before enrollment.

In any program the bulk of an Addiction Counseling major would include program required classes in psychology, addiction, and counseling. Courses can vary from program to program, but may include:

  • General Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Drug Classification, Assessment and Treatment
  • Professional Counseling Theories – individual, group, and family counseling
  • Physiologic Aspects of Chemical Dependence
  • Ethics
  • Theory of Addiction
  • Family Issues and Addictive Disorders
  • Special Populations (i.e. Juvenile, Women, Inmate/Prison)

In addition there can be additional classes that are not specific to a councilor but are required and can be helpful understanding the human body. Classes in these areas may include:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy and Physiology

If a formal degree is needed, an associate’s degree and higher, there can also be other areas of required classes that are common to all students in the school. It may look as if these classes would not be used in the profession, aspects will be used in the work environment and it helps the student become a well-rounded individual. There can be additional required courses in:

  • Math
  • English
  • Other Humanities and The Arts
  • Health and Wellness

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Addiction Counselor?

Being a counselor, or more specifically one who specializes in the field of addition has many benefits. But with any profession, there are negative aspects that should be considered and weighed against the positive ones.

On the positive side, some items that need to be considered are:

  • Job Security – In 2013 there was an estimated 24.6 million people in the U.S. that are addicted to illicit drugs, or illegal drugs. This is a 1.1% increase over ten years. This does not take into consideration legal drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and prescription medications.
  • The Satisfaction of Helping Others – This is not limited to just the abuser and can include their family and friends. Addiction does not affect just the user and those close to them need to know what challenges they are going through and how to help them.
  • Personal Growth – While counseling about making positive choices in life, you can take a step back and look at your own behaviors and habits. It is important to “practice what you preach” and it can help you live a more ethical and healthy life.

On the other side, there are negative aspects as well:

  • Low Success Rate in Recovery – With the challenges of recovery, there is a high rate of relapse. Recovery can be a lifelong challenge that is unique to the individual.
  • Clients Can Lie and Manipulate – Not everyone in treatment or counseling wants to get better. They can be there because they have been ordered to, plus they are addicted. Part of them will still crave the drug and will do what it needs to get it.
  • Possible Burnout – Counseling in any field can be emotionally exhausting. Even if the counselor takes steps to shield themselves, burnout can still happen.

How Much Does an Addiction Counselor Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an addiction counselor is $41,870, as of May 2014. Addiction counselors that fall in the lower 10% typically earn approximately $25,000 annually while those that fall in the top 10% usually earn $61,000 or more annually.

What is the Career Outlook for Addiction Counselors?

The career outlook is very good for addiction counselors, especially for those that have advanced training and experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), the job market for addiction counseling is expected to increase by approximately 31% by 2022. It is estimated that there will be a significant increase in substance abusers that require addiction counseling.

In addition, the job market for residential addiction counselors is expected to increase by 44% by the year in 2020 ( As more and more people seek counseling services, there will also be an additional need for addiction counselors in residential treatment facilities. Furthermore, as the number of drug offenders increases, there will be an increased need for addiction counselors to provide counseling services to incarcerated individuals.

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