How to Become an Addiction Therapist

The Basics

Becoming a therapist who specializes in addiction is one of the most challenging yet rewarding professions out there. It requires a whole lot of work, but the payoff is great and always worth the struggle in the end.

Addiction therapists have the chance to save individuals, families, careers, and really make a difference for such a wide range of clients.

What most people don’t know about the profession of addiction therapy is that it is quite a complex field within itself. For starters, there are all different “levels” and types of addiction, and one in profession has to be roundly knowledgeable upon any given circumstance at any given time.

Even in moments of uncertainty, you as an addiction therapist must portray confidence and leadership to those around you. An addiction therapist covers all types of general therapy and counseling (family, relationship, clinical, abusive, anxiety, depression, etc.) and then some. As previously stated, it’s hard work, but the results are much greater than the process.

What is an Addiction Therapist?

An addiction therapist is a specific kind of mental health professional who has specialty training and experience working with individuals who have an addiction issue such as substance dependence, compulsive gambling, or sex addiction.

There are different kinds of state and national licensures that indicate an addiction therapist’s level of experience and competency as well as the addiction issues they are qualified to treat, based on the established professional standards of the field.

Addiction therapists may be competent in a number of different evidenced-based effective treatments. They have a specialized educational background in psychological, physical, emotional, and neurological aspects and effects of different kinds of addiction.

Addiction therapists are available in a number of different professional settings, including inpatient rehabilitation facilities, private practices in the community, legal entities, prisons, hospitals, and specialty addiction treatment centers, where they may work in a variety of capacities on an addiction treatment team.

What Does an Addiction Therapist Do?

Addiction therapists provide evidenced-based interventions to persons struggling with an addiction issue, and also their family members as well, with the goal of helping the client reduce or desist completely from the unwanted behavior and maintain an ongoing lifestyle without the return of the behavior.

Addiction therapists can perform extensive assessments to determine the history, extent, and current specifics of a client’s addicted behaviors, and then help clients develop comprehensive treatment plans that addresses the various factors that may be contributing to the addiction.

The addiction therapist may then also be an ongoing part of the team that provides the interventions outlined by the treatment plan.

Addiction therapists may provide individual, group, and family counseling services to addicted individuals to help them work through the emotional issues that contribute to their addiction, as well as the addiction itself. They help their clients develop awareness of triggers—the thoughts, feelings, stressors, situations, or events that “trigger” them to engage in the addicted behavior—and to develop alternative, healthier coping behaviors.

Addiction therapists may help facilitate access to other supportive services such as 12 Step support groups, case management, job training, and financial counseling, with the expectation that addressing these concerns in a constructive manner will reduce the client’s impetus to engage in their addicted behavior.

Addiction therapists may also serve as liaisons between clients and other professionals on their treatment team, such as medication prescribers, case managers, and other professionals.

Why Do We Need Addiction Therapists?

Addiction therapists provide a vital service in contemporary society. The stresses and demands of living in the 21st century—as well as the increasing ubiquity of illegal and harmful substances and activities available for consumption—has resulted in an explosion of addiction behaviors that temporarily soothe and distract but ultimately ruin the lives of those whom in engage in them.

The rapid evolution of new, designer substances that are ripe with potential for abuse and dependence, and have devastating and often irreversible effects on the minds and bodies of those who use them, has created a significant demand for the services of addiction therapists.

Where Does an Addiction Therapist Work?

In the field of therapy, one has many different options of work environment. First off, there is always the option to own your own practice in which you work. However, most therapists choose to do this a few years or so into the field (at least) due to the fact that it is exceedingly costly.

The most commonly used place of work is in a clinic or community-counseling center.  These centers employ a wide range of amount of counselors (depending on the size and location) counselors or therapists of all levels of experience at one place.

Related Reading: Alcohol Therapist Career Guide

If you are just starting off in your field, this is a great place for you because you aren’t alone and your income of clientele isn’t solely dependent on you (as it would be in a private practice), but partially from the clinic or center itself.

Of course there are other possible places of employment such as in schools, programs, and more, however, the above are the most common work environments and the ones that you will find almost anywhere.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become an Addiction Therapist?

There are different levels of certification for addiction therapists in the United States, some of which are licensed at the state level, and others of which are national-level certifications.

State credentialing standards vary and are not necessarily reciprocal between states. The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP) has following three main credentials for addiction therapists:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor Level I (NCAC I)
  • Level II (NCAC II)
  • The Master Addiction Counselor with Co-Occurring Disorders (MAC).

To be eligible for the NCAC I certification, applicants need to have a GED, high school diploma, or higher level of education; a state-issued addiction counselor credential; 270 hours of addiction counseling or related education (including certain specialty requirements); 6,000 hours/3 years of relevant supervised experience and a passing score on the NCAC I Exam.

The NCAC II requires a Bachelor’s degree; a state-issued addiction counselor credential; 10,000 hours/5 years full-time supervised, relevant experience; 450 hours of education; and a passing score on the NCAC II exam.

The MAC credential requires a Master’s Degree or higher in addiction/related subject; a state-issued credential as a mental health or medical professional; 6,000 hours/3 years of supervised field work; 500 hours of addictions training education; and a passing score on the MAC exam.

Some states require individuals to have additional state-endorsements in certain specialties such as gambling addiction in order to practice in that specific area.

There are a number of specialty endorsements available that indicate an addiction therapist’s education and training relative to specific addiction issues such as certain substances or addictive behaviors. These credentials have specific additional educational requirements and exams, and often they also require the individual to have worked in the field under the supervision of another more experienced, licensed addiction professional after completing the coursework.

In some instances, individuals seeking licensure as an addiction professional may be given some educational credit for past work in a related mental health area.

Any addiction therapist wishing to work with a specific addiction issue should carefully check both state and national practice and licensure guidelines, as severe legal and professional penalties may result from practicing without the appropriate credentials.

What is the Job Outlook for Addiction Therapists?

Addiction is an all-too-common occurrence in the United States. But with the growing opioid crisis in this country, the demand for addiction therapists is certain to rise over the course of the next few years as state and federal agencies try to address the issues brought about by this most dangerous addiction.

In fact, in response to the growing epidemic of addiction, it can be reasonably assumed that addiction therapists will see much stronger job growth over the next decade than other sectors of psychology.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs job growth for substance abuse counselors to be at 22 percent over the next ten years.

Students that pursue an education in addiction therapy should find plentiful opportunities for employment after graduation. But just because addiction therapists are in demand doesn’t mean that there will be jobs for everyone. Rather, if students wish to have the best career opportunities, getting a master’s degree and some on-the-job experience will only improve job prospects.

How Much Does an Addiction Therapist Earn?

There is a wide range of salary that you can collect depending upon where your place of employment is and your experience. The higher your experience, the higher your rate per session.

If you work in a private practice, your salary is often higher than if you work in a counseling center. According to the ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a licensed addiction counselor is $61,945 as of October 2021.

Addiction counselors that fall in the lower 10% typically earn approximately $25,000 annually while those that fall in the top 10% usually earn $115,000 or more annually.

What Careers are Similar to Addiction Therapy?

Substance Abuse Counselor

Like addiction therapists, substance abuse counselors specialize in offering services that assist people in overcoming an addiction.

In part, substance abuse counseling is working directly with the individual that has the addiction. That might be in a group or individual therapy session, in an inpatient or outpatient rehab program, or even in an institution like a hospital or jail.

Careers in this field also require workers to consult with family and friends of their clients, take part in outreach programs to educate the community about the dangers of addiction, and even conduct research on addiction to help identify possible reasons why it develops in some people but not in others.

Social Worker

Unlike addiction therapy, social work isn’t as laser-focused on treating addictions. Instead, social work takes a much broader approach, helping individuals, groups, and even entire communities identify and resolve problems that have a negative impact on their lives.

The focus might be on economic problems like job loss, family problems like divorce, or even health issues, like a chronic illness.  Part of that process involves working directly with clients to assess their needs, their strengths and weaknesses, and the types of support they have in their lives that make achieving their goals more likely.

Additionally, social work has an advocacy component, meaning, social workers often lobby on behalf of their clients for services like food stamps, welfare, healthcare assistance, and so forth.

Clinical Psychologist

Another career that’s closely related to addiction therapy is clinical psychology. Like social work, clinical psychology is much more broad-based than addiction therapy.

A clinical psychologist most commonly works in private practice or in an institutional setting and works with individuals or small groups of clients to help them resolve personal, emotional, behavioral, and/or psychological problems.

Clinical psychologists might also work in research – like trying to find the cause of autism – or in the education sector – as a college-level teacher who trains the next generation of clinical psychologists.

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