How to Become a Drug and Alcohol Counselor


Whether you are contemplating a change of career paths or you have always wanted to become a drug and alcohol counselor you are well on your way to do your community a great service. Unfortunately, thousands of people currently suffer from addiction on harmful substances. And as the National Institute on Drug Abuse demonstrated in its National Overdose Deaths reports, the trend seems to be rising with each passing year. Likewise, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports a staggering alcohol-related number of deaths: An estimated 88.000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

As is plain to see from the collected data, it is quite easy to slip from casual use to overindulging and then on cold, hard addiction. Drug and alcohol counselors provide people suffering from addiction access to services such as counseling, healthcare and education in order to aid them to overcome and eventually conquer their dependencies on substances. It is an extremely important profession, whose significance is only magnified by the prevalence of alcohol and drugs in modern society.

Prior-Requirements and necessary background

The field of substance abuse counseling is open to several different educational paths. In some cases, working in the field is open on an entry-level, with many states requiring only a high school diploma, enrollment in a bachelor’s degree and proof of employment.

Earning a relevant Bachelor’s Degree, in psychology, counseling and mental health is usually the first significant step in acquiring the necessary academic credentials and knowledge background for this line of work. Taking further steps in focusing your expertise, like earning a Master’s Degree or Doctorate Degree will have a direct impact on your level of autonomy and earned salary and expose you to significantly more work opportunities.

The next important step in developing your career is collecting clinical practice hours by working as a counselor. Depending on the level of your certificated education, you will be able to qualify for different level positions. Thus, earning an associate’s degree will usually open only entry level positions for you whereas a Master’s degree in counseling will open up higher level positions for you in the medical and healthcare or social work environment.

An alternative way to earn relevant counseling experience is through volunteering. You will put your skills to good work, constantly honing and improving on them, you will experience first hand what it means to be a counselor – which will show you clearly if this is the right path for you, and most importantly for your career, you will earn useful contacts that could eventually evolve to paid work. We encourage you to find out volunteering opportunities by contacting local substance abuse organizations.

Drug and Alcohol Counselor Certification

After you have earned your degree and gathered enough work experience, you will want to invest in getting licensed as a Substance Abuse Counselor. More than likely, you will have to take more than one exam along your way. A great number of States require aspiring professional counselors, regardless of their specialty, to take the National Counselor Examination, administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. As you develop your career, you might also be interested in taking the Examination for Master Addiction Counselors, which is also offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Having earned both of these credentials you will be allowed to seek Drug and Alcohol Counselor Professional status with the federal government.

It needs to be stressed, however, that many States have their own in-state certifications. Even though these might be quite similar in content and scope with the National certifications, you might want to focus on getting them as well, as they will only ameliorate your chances of being employed and offer you significant opportunities for exposure to your state’s work field.

Keep note that licensing of candidates can occur at several different levels. You are not required to have a Master’s level degree if you are not interested in becoming a Master Addiction counselor. Depending on your particular state, and your own aspirations, you should calibrate your goals and moves to the appropriate level.

Relevant skills to develop

There is more to working as a Substance Abuse Counselor than earning degrees and certifications. Considering how it is quite the intricate profession and you will be dealing with troubled and often difficult people there are some unwritten necessary skills for you to have in order to be successful. If the following listed skills are not your biggest strengths, you might want to reconsider your career. In any case, however, you would do well to do all that can be done to develop and practice them on your everyday life and off-work relationships:

  • Ability to maintain your composure.
  • Adaptability to fluid circumstances.
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills, with active listening being a necessity.
  • Personal integrity and critical thinking abilities.
  • High tolerance for stress.

Re-cap of becoming a Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor

To summarize, in order to become a successful Drug Alcohol Counselor you need to guide yourself through the following steps:

  • Earn an entry-level certification: If you have not yet gained your bachelor’s degree, you will be pleased to know that some States require only a high school diploma and proof of employment.
  • Get a Bachelor’s Degree: Thus, you will gain a very useful relevant academic background on addiction and treatment methods.
  • Work experience: You should aim to get at least two years of full clinical experience, in order to be eligible for licensing.
  • National Certification: This is a necessary step in order to be recognized as a certified, substance abuse counselor professional.
  • Earn supervised work experience: The actual number of required hours depends on state. Some, require as many as two thousand hours of supervised work experience.
  • In-state license: Every state is unique in its specific requirements. Consult your state’s regulatory board, in order to get licensed and enable yourself to administer substance abuse treatment in your home state.


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