Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse creates an emotional, psychological, and physiological impact to all parties involved. This extends to not only the individual directly struggling with the addiction, but also to family and friends who care about their loved one. Thus, a substance abuse counselor must be familiar with the impact that dependencies have on many different people.

Substance abuse counseling offers a challenging and rewarding career. Over 20 million people are treating annually for alcohol and drug dependency. Our society has become more understanding towards people who battle substance abuse, therefore we find more and more people seeking help when they need it. As compared to the past when drug offenders were sent to jail, most courts now order addicts to attend drug treatment programs or rehabilitation centers. Although the demand for substance counselors continues to grow, lack of funding remains an issue. Cutbacks in support in all sectors have been felt. In addition, health insurance companies have made it harder to qualify for assistance and treatment.

Despite the harsh realities this profession is feeling, there will always be the need for substance abuse counselors to work in many settings, whether in the government, private, or non-profit sectors. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median salary for a substance abuse counselor is between $29,000 and $48,000 annually. For more experienced counselors with an advanced degree and experience, the average salary jumps to over $60,000 a year. Each state sets their own requirements to practice in the field, so it is important to verify what it will take to work in your state. Sixty-seven percent of the people currently working in the abuse counseling field are women, and sixty-nine percent of people working in the profession have between one to nine years of experience. This percentage drops considerably after the ninth year to 18% which leads you to assume that people in this profession move onto other careers or opportunities after gaining a significant amount of experience.

Substance abuse counselor jobs are found in a variety of settings, which include government services, hospitals, schools, residential facilities, individual or family services, and detention and outpatient care centers. According to, most jobs are found in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Honolulu. Job titles vary by employer with many job postings calling for chemical dependency counselors, mental health counselors, or certified addiction drug and alcohol counselors. The National Youth Anti-Drug Campaign and the Ad Council has been effective at educating and communicating the public about the dangers of alcohol and drug use. A substance abuse counselor working with teens or young adults may be asked to provide on-site school therapy, group meetings, and/or family sessions.

There may also be some form of clerical duties such as supervising other staff members, phone calls to teachers and cases workers, and documenting the progress of the client. The highest percentage of substance abuse occurs in young adults, so the demand for counselors in high school and colleges has increased. People interested in counseling should have compassion, patience, and the desire to help others. They should also be able to inspire, trust, and respect their clientele. They act as an advocate for the individuals they serve with the ability to realistically set expectations in career and personal goals. They may help students develop job search skills, write a resume, and prepare for interviews. They are also trained to identify cases of domestic abuse or family problems that many hinder a client’s development. Since some form of mental health may be an underlying problem, counselors are trained to identify and address issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, suicidal tendencies, grief, and low self-esteem problems. Most counselors work closely with other specialists such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers to develop a support network and variety of programs.

Online Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counseling involves helping patients overcome their struggles with addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling. The disease of addiction targets the mid-brain, the reward or pleasure section of the brain that releases dopamine. This results in symptoms seen in every addict with the disease of dependence, loss of control, cravings, and other adverse consequences. The disease of addiction affects not just the substance abuser, but also their family, marriage, job, and friends. It can also affect their organs including the cardiovascular system, liver, kidneys, GI tract, and neuropathy to the degree that harm could be fatal and irreversible. Effects of substance abuse are devastating, sometimes leading to mood swings, poor judgment, altered perception, increased risk of suicide and violence towards others, poor performance at work or school, and increase in risky sexual behaviors.

There are many methods and approaches to helping counsel individuals facing these challenges. A substance abuse counselor may find employment in rehabilitation centers, government agencies, prisons, or private practice. The average starting salary for substance abuse counselors is about $40,000 with an expected increase in job growth throughout the year 2018. This job growth is partially due to societal views changing on how we view addiction. More substance abuse counseling programs are available to rehabilitate the addict, and society is more accepting toward the challenges these individuals face.

In the last ten years, online degrees have become a recognized, viable option in continuing education. The online education alternative caters to those individuals who need flexibility in schedule to achieve abalance between a personal lifestyle and academics without too much sacrifice.

Besides the flexibility in time, online courses are typically less expensive with the ability to remotely attend classes at some of the best universities. Travel and housing costs are eliminated, and textbooks are sometimes provided in an online format. Online degrees are usually specialized in a specific field of study, thereby eliminating unnecessary core studies. When evaluating which online school to attend, it would be wise to seek out an accredited institution that is monitored and evaluated by independent outside agencies regarding the quality of education the school provides. Since each state typically requires licensing to practice in the field of substance abuse counseling, the investment in the education you pursue should sufficiently prepare you to practice in the field. Some employers will accept a high school diploma, however a bachelor’s or master’s degree is preferable.

There are many websites you can use to search for accredited online substance abuse programs. can help you become more familiar with online learning, career specialties, school offerings by state, and feedback from other students. There is also a resource section that provides information on conferences, certifications, and continuing education in the field. You will find that some of the available degrees in the profession include:

  • Bachelors of Arts in Psychology in Substance Abuse
  • Masters of Science in Addiction Counseling
  • Bachelors of Science with emphasis in addiction, substance abuse, and chemical dependency
  • Masters in rehabilitation and mental health counseling
  • Certificate in counseling with a focus on addiction studies
  • Masters in Clinical Psychology in Counseling with a focus in treatment of addiction disorders, as well as many other programs specializing in mental health and addiction counseling.

An online degree in substance abuse counseling will provide the balance of work, life, and school that many people need. It provides convenience and flexibility by allowing you to complete assignments on your own time, usually eliminating the need to attend class or group projects. Students are required to complete assignments and course activities by a certain date and must submit them for credit. Assignments are graded based on merit and timeliness. Feedback from instructors is typically provided by email or threaded discussions, at times providing live demonstrations using virtual conferencing. Instructors are trained on ways to keep the online study interactive and engaging. Most schools provide student advisors and experienced faculty to help with any questions. For those students who need help paying for their education, most schools accept financial aid for individuals who qualify.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary

To make the decision to become a substance abuse counselor comes easily when you know you’d like to help people overcome addiction. Some people are drawn to the profession if they have personally experienced or encountered a loved one or friend struggle with addiction. This precipitates the desire help others. In the role of substance abuse counselor, an individual should have a large amount of patience and be compassionate toward the people he is assisting. The road to recovery, for most addicts, is long and hard – with most people relapsing during their plight. Therefore, the relationships that are formed are usually lasting, creating a bond amongst all parties.

A substance abuse counselor’s salary will vary depending on the specialty the professional chooses. Because many people enter the field due to personal desire, the amount of money they make is secondary to fulfilling their personal goals. Let’s take a look at some roles and salaries of substance abuse counselors :

  1. Substance Abuse Counselors in Residential Treatment CentersA residential treatment center is typically a place where a patient visits for a period of time. Residential treatment may be provided long-term or short-term and may include a stay at a hospital, halfway house, detention center, or private treatment facility. A treatment center provides a structured program where a counselor administers individual and group therapy. Therapy may also be inclusive of family to assist uncovering some of the dependency problems. The goal of the program is to help patients change their destructive pattern of thinking. Activities at a treatment center are supervised with educational talks on how drugs and alcohol can cause harm. A substance abuse counselor salary in a residential treatment center averages about $23,000 – $49,000, with most jobs requiring at least a master’s degree, certification, and state licensure.
  2. Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment centersBesides the temporary housing that a residential treatment center provides, inpatient and outpatient treatment centers also exist. Inpatient centers are usually located in a hospital where the person receives medical supervision during detoxification to prevent him from hurting himself. The outpatient facility program offers a longer treatment plan, which runs from about two months to one year and the patient is allowed to live at home, work, and attend school during their treatment. They are required to attend the clinic during the evening or weekends and usually participate in a twelve-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, to assist their road to recovery. Depending on the nature of the facility and expertise of the counseling staff, salaries could vary. The median substance abuse counselor salary certified in addiction drug and alcohol ranges from the low $20,000 to $50,000. A mental health counselor’s salary could reach into the $60,000 range.

    A chemical dependency counselor will earn between $30,000 and $50,000. Of course, the more education, experience, certifications, and licensures a person possesses, the more competitive salary he can demand. More than half of all licensed substance abuse counselors have at least a master’s degree. Some jobs require a psychologist as opposed to a counselor. Both individuals help people cope with the emotional stress of substance abuse, however a licensed clinical counselor requires a doctorate in psychology with five to seven years of postgraduate work to practice.

  3. Private CounselingSome patients may choose to undergo private counseling treatment. Counseling may be directed toward the individual or may involve the entire family. Some insurance companies will not pay for private substance abuse counseling, which means that the patient will have to cover the expense. Some social service programs and government programs offer substance abuse counseling and support on a long-term basis to individuals suffering from chemical dependency.

    A substance abuse counselor salary for these professionals falls from $35,000 – $53,000 with a wide range of benefits.

    In some cases, people in high profile professions or social status may prefer to be treated by a private counselor due to the sensitivity and confidentiality of the issue. The Betty Ford Center is one type of alcohol addiction and drug addiction treatment center that offers help to individuals and their families. Salaries for private counseling will be higher than most others in this profession, earning more than $100,000 per year.

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