How to Become an Alcohol Therapist

The Basics

Growing up in a household in which alcohol was abused, or abusing alcohol yourself as a child or adult, can be disheartening, confusing, and difficult to overcome. The compulsion to drink and the physiological need to drink can easily overpower the desire to quit and make positive life changes. The vicious cycle that is alcohol abuse and addiction can continue for years – even decades – and often ends in injury, illness, broken relationships, and even death.

Though this paints a very ugly picture, individuals that are addicted to alcohol can change their lives for the better, especially if they have help, support, and guidance along the way. Alcohol therapists are just one of many professionals that are trained to work with people addicted to alcohol in a way that helps their clients quit drinking, sober up, detoxify, and learn to live a healthier, happier lifestyle without alcohol.

What Does an Alcohol Therapist Do?

On a broad level, alcohol therapists work with individuals that have an alcohol dependency or addiction to help them overcome their alcohol-related problems and live a clean, sober lifestyle.

However, alcohol therapists have a much broader list of duties that encompasses everything from overseeing group therapy sessions to developing treatment plans to even helping educate friends and family of their clients about addiction.

For example, an alcohol therapist that works in an inpatient substance abuse rehabilitation center might work with small groups of individuals who are addicted to alcohol.

In that group setting, the therapist’s job might be to facilitate an open and honest discussion amongst group members of their experiences with alcohol addiction. In the context of such discussions, the therapist might use each person’s experience as a teaching moment, working with the group to highlight what went wrong in the person’s life and why, and what they can do now to prevent such issues from happening again in the future.

Related: How to Become an Adolescent Therapist

Many alcohol therapists also work with individuals in a one-on-one setting. Typically, these types of sessions tend to focus on two areas – exploring the roots of the person’s addiction and helping them to develop the skills they need to stay sober.

For example, an alcohol therapist working with a client might initially meet with them to discuss things like their family history, their relationships with friends and family, and any triggers they can identify that lead them to abuse alcohol. In that regard, alcohol therapists spend a lot of time trying to develop an understanding of their client and what their experience has been like so as to identify possible psychological, physiological, or behavioral causes of their addiction.

From there, alcohol therapists work with the client to help them build the coping skills they need to deal with stressors that led them to drink in the past and make good decisions in the present to stay sober.

Why Do We Need Alcohol Therapists?

Though alcohol is legal for the majority of the population to consume, it is among the most addictive substances we can ingest. As a result, there are widespread problems with alcohol abuse and addiction.

In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that in 2015, 26.9 percent of Americans aged 18 or over have engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days. In the same report, NIAAA notes that 15.1 million adults have an Alcohol Use Disorder and that 623,000 children under the age of 18 have an Alcohol Use Disorder.

About 88,000 people die each year in the United States from misuse of alcohol. That makes alcohol the third leading cause of death second only to tobacco and poor diet. All told, the NIAAA estimates that alcohol-related problems cost the U.S. nearly $250 billion each year.

Given that, it becomes evident why alcohol therapists and other addiction counselors are so desperately needed. Not only are they trained to help people recognize the problems that alcohol is causing in their lives, but they can also help teach people to cope with their desires to drink, learn healthy coping strategies to deal with those desires, and lead a healthier life.

What are the Requirements to Become an Alcohol Therapist?

Educational Requirements

The minimum requirement to become an alcohol therapist is an associate degree. An associate degree typically requires about 90 units and takes two years of full-time to complete. Courses may include psychology, multicultural counseling, and foundations of counseling. An associate degree prepares a graduate to work in positions, such as a caseworker in a half-way house for recovering addicts, support group facilitator, and a human service assistant in a drug and alcohol treatment program.

For those who want to have greater responsibility as an alcohol therapist, a bachelor degree is the next step. The exact units needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in drug and alcohol counseling may vary, but usually, a minimum of 120 credits is needed. It usually takes fours years of full-time study to complete a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling. Classes may include psychopharmacology, psychological assessments, and diagnosis of dependency.

The next step in further education in substance counseling is a master’s degree. A master’s degree may prepare students to work in private practice as a therapist. Most master’s degree programs in counseling require completion of about 45 to 60 units, which takes about two years. Classes include techniques of group counseling, treatment methods of substance abuse, and statistics.

A doctorate is the highest degree you can earn in the field of substance abuse counseling. A doctorate in substance abuse counseling may take three or more years of study. Classes required may include counseling ethics, advanced treatment techniques, and therapy session strategies. Employment opportunities may include director of a drug and alcohol treatment program, professor, and alcohol therapist in private practice.

Licensure Requirements

Although the field of alcohol counseling is regulated, the licensing requirements to become an alcohol therapist vary by state. While specific licensing requirements are different, all states require therapists who are in private practice be licensed as a counselor in the state they wish to work.

Typically, most states require a minimum of a master’s degree in social work, counseling, or closely related field. Also, most states require between 2000 and 3000 hours of clinical experience providing therapy under a licensed therapist. After completing the requirements, individuals are eligible to sit for the licensing exam in their state. A felony and criminal background check are also required to work as an alcohol therapist.

For alcohol therapists not working in private practice, the requirements also vary by state. For example, some states do not require licensure to work as a substance abuse counselor in a drug and alcohol treatment center.

What Does It Take to be an Alcohol Therapist?

Being an alcohol therapist can be a rewarding career. But it is not always easy, and it may not be the right choice for everyone. Having certain traits and skills can help you succeed including the following:

  • Compassion: One of the most important traits an alcohol therapist can have is compassion. Compassion may be useful to convey a sense of understanding and build trust with your clients.
  • Stress management skills: Providing drug and alcohol counseling can be stressful at times. Therapists must be able to remain calm under duress. Drug counselors need to deal with their own emotions and stress in a healthy way.
  • Non-judgmental attitude: Being non-judgmental is a must for those working in the drug and alcohol field. Alcohol therapists who are closeminded will find they have a difficult time doing their best to help their clients. People who abuse drugs come from all backgrounds and walks of life. Keeping an open mind towards your clients will help you do a better job.
  • Creativity: Creativity is a definite advantage for those working as an alcohol therapist. Although your training provides you with models of counseling, not everyone responds to all types of therapy. There may be instances when you have to think outside the box and use strategies that are unique to the situation.
  • Optimism: Optimism is a helpful trait for someone working as an alcohol therapist. Recovery from addiction can be a long road. It is often filled with missteps and setbacks. It can be difficult to watch a client stumble and start using alcohol or drugs again. Having an optimistic nature will not only help your clients, but it will also decrease the chances of developing burnout.

How Much Does an Alcohol Therapist Earn?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the average salary in 2016 for alcohol therapists was just over $44,000 a year. Salary does vary based on education, setting, and location. For example, alcohol therapists who work in residential drug treatment centers tend to earn the lowest salaries for this field.

Higher salaries can also be earned working in colleges and scientific research. Earning potential may also be higher for those who work in private practice. Typically having an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctorate, also results in increased wages.

Salaries also varied by geographic location. For instance, states including New Mexico, Alaska, and New York offer higher pay than other parts of the country. Within a state, wages also tend to be higher in larger cities as opposed to small towns and rural communities.

What is the Job Outlook for Alcohol Therapists?

The outlook for alcohol therapists is excellent, According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for alcohol therapists is expected to increase by roughly 20 percent through 2026, which is faster than the average of most occupations. Part of the demand for alcohol therapists is from people seeking treatment due to the increased incidence of abuse of opioids including prescription pain medication.

More therapists are also needed as many states are seeking substance abuse treatment for drug offenders instead of sentencing them to jail time. Alcohol and drug counseling may be more effective at decreasing recidivism than jail time. It also tends to be more cost-effective than prison.

Alcohol therapists can also expect to find increased opportunities in veteran’s programs. As there is an increased awareness of the issues facing vets including alcohol and drug abuse, more veteran’s programs are hiring alcohol therapists.

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