How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance Abuse Counselor Key Stats
Avg. Salary / year $43,250
Avg. Pay / hour $20.79
Education 4+ Years
Job Outlook 22%

If you have an empathetic nature, are a great communicator, and genuinely enjoy helping people in need, then you might like to become a substance abuse counselor.

These specialists help people come through some of the darkest times of their lives, and overcome some tough obstacles.

Working as a substance abuse counselor is without a doubt challenging, but ultimately can be very rewarding.

A substance abuse counselor helps people to overcome their addictions to things like alcohol or drugs.

Counselors may work with a patient one on one, or in a group situation.

To work in this field, you will need to be licensed, and this requires at least a masters degree.

Employment prospects are excellent, as the job opportunities in this area are set to outnumber the candidates due to graduate in the coming years.

Education Requirements to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

While you must be licensed in all states to become a substance abuse counselor, the requirements for licensure vary from place to place.

In most places you will need a masters degree to work as a counselor.

To begin with, you’ll need to complete a four years bachelors degree.

Your major should be in social work, psychology, or a similar area.

You’ll then need to go to graduate school to complete a masters degree in counseling, which will take between two and three years to finish.

Masters degree programs are made up partially of coursework, and you will be able to select a program that has a focus on substance abuse counseling.

You will also complete supervised professional practice, where you will have the opportunity to work with clients.

While at college, it’s good to gain some other experience also.

You could volunteer your time to work in a treatment centre or hospital, or you might also work for a phone hot line for people with addiction problems.

You can find state specific accreditation information and degree programs at the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs website.

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description

When you become a substance abuse counselor, you will work with individuals attempting to overcome the grip of addiction.

You may work with people suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling or sex addiction, or with eating disorders.

A counselor may work with a client one on one.

They usually design a treatment program which could involve individual counseling or group therapy.

Many treatment programs involve the client doing volunteer or community work.

Many substance abuse counselors work within hospitals or for social welfare agencies.

Some work within treatment facilities, while others work privately out of their own offices.

Here are some of the duties of a substance abuse counselor:

  • Scheduling appointments with clients
  • Leading group therapy sessions
  • Counseling sessions with clients
  • Making a treatment plan for clients
  • Providing counseling to family members of clients
  • Keeping patient notes and files
  • Research into substance abuse

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary and Career Path

Once you have completed the educational requirements and supervised professional practice, you will be ready to start work as a substance abuse counselor.

Most begin their career as an employee, working within a hospital or for a treatment facility.

Some later go on to become self-employed.

Some counselors go on to become researchers in the area of social welfare, and others go into other areas of psychology, counseling, social work, or go on to teach counseling at a college.

When you become a counselor, you can expect to earn close to the median salary of $49,000 a year once you have a few years of experience.

The top 10% of earners make around $70,000 a year.

If you are self-employed you will have the opportunity to earn more.

Some roles that are similar to that of a substance abuse counselor include:

  • Marriage counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Social worker
  • College professor
  • School counselor
  • Occupational therapist
  • Physical therapist

With strong growth and excellent job opportunities, you might like to become a substance abuse counselor if you are looking for a career in health.

It’s an excellent opportunity to help someone through some of the greatest challenges of their life, and make a positive contribution to your own community through your work.

BLSThe below information is based on the 2021 BLS national averages.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary


Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$64,920
New Hampshire$47,610
New Jersey$63,430
New Mexico$60,720
New York$56,050
North Carolina$52,850
North Dakota$59,880
Rhode Island$64,640
South Carolina$44,250
South Dakota$45,410
West Virginia$41,520
Puerto Rico$20,290
Virgin Islands$46,900

The top earning state in the field is Utah, where the average salary is $66,190.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

Utah - $66,190
Alaska - $65,090
District of Columbia - $64,920
Rhode Island - $64,640
New Jersey - $63,430
* Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, OCC Code 21-1018, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a substance abuse counselor?

Substance abuse counselors sometimes also called addiction counselors, advise people who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction.

Their role is to provide treatment and support to help their patients recover from addiction.

Substance abuse counselors may work with their clients individually or in group sessions and many incorporate the principles of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

They also help their clients reestablish their careers and improve their personal relationships.

Addiction counselors sometimes work with psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and other health professionals to develop treatment plans for patients.

Some of them specialize in working with specific groups of people, such as teenagers and veterans.

They usually work full time but may work during evenings, weekends and nights in order to accommodate the needs of their clients.

How much does a substance abuse counselor make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $44,630 as of May 2018.

Salaries in this field vary based on a wide range of factors.

Some earn less than $30,000 a year, while others make more than $70,000.

How much does it cost to become a substance abuse counselor?

Most substance abuse counselors have a bachelor’s degree but some also hold a master’s degree in psychology, mental health counseling, social work or a related field.

Four-year bachelor’s degree programs in counseling psychology cost, on average, around $130,000 but tuition costs vary widely depending on the school you choose and the program itself.

Master’s degree programs in the field cost, on average, less than $9,000 a year at public institutions.

Depending on the state and employer, educational requirements vary from a certification to a master’s degree.

In order to work in private practice, you will need a license; which means that you must have a master’s degree and some supervised clinical experience.

What is the demand for substance abuse counselors?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in this field is expected to grow 22 percent from 2018 to 2028.

This growth is explained mostly by the fact that more people seek the help of addiction and mental health counselors.

Substance abuse counselors are also needed to help offenders who have addiction problems as more states seek treatment and counseling services instead of jail time.

How long does it take to become a substance abuse counselor?

Educational requirements vary depending on the state and the employer.

Holding a bachelor’s and a master’s degree will give you better job prospects and will help you provide more services for your patients.

Bachelor’s degree programs usually can be completed in around 4 years, while master’s degrees can typically be earned in 2 years.

If you want to work for a private practice you will also need a license.

Licensure requirements vary by state but you will typically need a master’s degree and between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience before being eligible to take the state exam.

As a licensed counselor, you will also have to take continuing education classes each year.

Jamie Willis
Career Specialist at BecomeopediaHi, my name is Jamie Willis, and I have been helping students find their perfect internships and education paths for the last ten years. It is a passion of mine, and there really is nothing better than seeing students of mine succeed with further studies.

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