Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

Students interested in pursuing a career that helps individuals work to overcome substance abuse are likely to be drawn to the field of substance abuse counseling. Substance abuse counselors specialize in the treatment of patients who have a chemical dependency on legal or illegal drugs, such as alcohol, prescription pain medication, methamphetamine, and heroin, among others.

The first step toward pursuing jobs in this field is to complete an education. There are numerous substance abuse counseling schools to choose from, and students interested in studying remotely can complete their substance abuse counseling degree online.

Aspiring licensed substance abuse counselors must start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a substance abuse counseling school with proper accreditation. Most full-time students find they can complete their undergraduate degree in approximately four years. In addition to completing a bachelor's degree, a graduate degree, such as a Master of Counseling or Doctorate of Counseling, must be obtained before applying for a license to practice as a substance abuse counselor.

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MA in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine
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What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

The primary role of a substance abuse counselor is to help clients overcome addictions to alcohol and legal and illegal drugs, such as prescription and over-the-counter pain medication and street drugs.

Although the exact job duties for this position can vary widely based on the type of role and size of the organization an individual works for, common job duties include the following.

  • Performing intake interviews
  • Developing treatment and recovery programs
  • Performing one-on-one counseling
  • Leading group counseling sessions
  • Collaborating with other professionals involved in their client’s care, such as psychiatrists, social workers, doctors, nurses, and the legal system

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Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

These counselors work one on one with people suffering from addiction in an attempt to guide them to a better lifestyle.

These professionals can be found in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, or even community outreach centers. As a substance abuse counselor, individuals will find that they work that they do contributes to a better society overall.

Undergraduate Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

An interesting fact about substance abuse counseling is that some jobs can be obtained at only an associate degree level. Counselors at this level would only provide minimal support to those in need, but would be a priceless asset to those seeking freedom from addiction.

Beginning at the undergraduate level, these students will be introduced to psychology in both scientific and social aspects. Touching on courses such as abnormal psychology, addiction psychology, and social psychology will prepare undergraduate learners for the graduate curriculum that lies ahead.

It is important that future students choose a degree program that is related to their graduate degree program, so that there is maximum exposure to the psychological and social aspects that go into studying substance abuse counseling.

Graduate Level Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

In all states, those that desire to become licensed substance abuse counselors must first graduate with a graduate level degree from an accredited university.

Length of Graduate Counseling Programs
A Master's degree in Substance Abuse Counseling can be completed in 2-3 years, depending on a student's rate of study. A doctoral degree takes 4-5 years to complete.

For graduate learners, the curriculum is much more major-oriented, introducing students to the different therapeutic aspects of substance abuse counseling in classroom and laboratory settings. The experience gained through graduate studies and supervised practicum provides future professionals with real-world practice in the field.

The Research Project
As a requirement of most licensure programs, students must take part in a certain number of practicum hours, most of the time being 300 hours or more.

At the end of the graduate program, students are required to submit a research project for their master's degree. This project carries heavy weight in the program and tests the abilities of graduates in counseling techniques.

Most professionals choose to stop at the master's degree level, since this is the minimum requirement for each state for licensure.

Work Environments for Substance Abuse Counselors

Substance abuse counselors who have completed a drug and alcohol counseling degree online or on-campus and have passed a state licensing exam are eligible to work in a variety of settings.

These can include state, local and private hospitals; residential substance abuse and mental health care facilities; outpatient treatment centers; homeless shelters and nonprofits; prisons, juvenile detention facilities, jails, and parole agencies; and private practice.

Listed below are some national organizations that employ substance abuse counselors.

  • The Salvation Army
  • Mount Sinai Health System
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital
  • Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
  • Branches of the U.S. Military
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs
  • YMCA

Substance Abuse Counselor Salaries and Career Paths

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an annual median wage for substance abuse counselors of $46,240 as of May 2019, with the highest 10% earning more than $76,080 per year on average. Salary ranges in this field can vary widely based on several factors, such as an individual’s years of experience, the city in which the position is located, and where an individual is employed.

The median annual wage for substance abuse counselors employed by the government, for example, was $52,720, where the median salary for professionals employed at residential mental health counseling and substance abuse facilities was $39,690.

Employment of substance abuse counselors is projected to grow by 25% between 2019 and 2029, according to the BLS. This is much faster than the projected growth for all occupations. The job growth in this field is being driven by several factors, including states’ increased preference for sentencing drug offenders to treatment and counseling as opposed to jail. Additionally, it’s projected there will be a continued need for substance abuse counselors who specialize in working with military veterans.

Individuals interested in becoming a substance abuse counselor can pursue several career paths, including the following.

Drug and Alcohol Counselor

Drug and alcohol counselors help individuals understand and overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol. Individuals in this field help people identify the root causes of their problems, such as depression, anxiety, childhood trauma, and sexual assault, among others.

Understanding why they’re drawn toward destructive behavior, and the emotions they are trying to numb through drugs and alcohol, can help individuals in their recovery. Students who are interested in careers as drug counselors and are leaning toward remote learning should research drug and alcohol counseling degree online programs.

Youth Prevention Program Leader

Youth prevention program leaders deliver research-based drug and alcohol prevention programs in the communities they serve. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that prevention programs should address all forms of drug abuse, including over-the-counter drug abuse, prescription and illegal drug abuse, and alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Furthermore, prevention programs should focus on addressing the type of drug abuse that’s prevalent in the local community and be tailored to specific audiences based on their ethnicity, age, gender, and other characteristics.

Drug Rehabilitation Center Counselor

In a rehabilitation setting, substance abuse counselors work with patients who need help regaining control of their lives. Most patients remain in treatment for 30, 60, or 90 days. Drug rehabilitation center counselors work with patients throughout their stay, in both one-on-one and group counseling sessions, to provide them with tools and techniques to help them overcome drug addiction.

In some instances, they may see patients several times per day. Patients discharged to a sober living facility may also work with their drug rehabilitation center counselor in an outpatient setting to maintain their treatment plans. Individuals who have completed an online addiction counseling degree may find they’re well prepared to pursue jobs in this field.

Why Should You Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Addiction wreaks havoc not only on the body, but it can have a debilitating effect on an individual’s mental state and their relationships with friends and family. Drug and alcohol addiction can also negatively impact a person’s ability to find and maintain employment, which can lead to a downward spiral of financial troubles and homelessness.

Substance abuse counselors often find they can help people change their lives. In addition to helping individuals recover from trauma, depression, and low self-esteem, they help their clients understand and defend against triggers such as stress and being around people or places that enable their addiction.

In some cases, substance abuse counselors have dealt with their own drug or alcohol issues before becoming counselors themselves. They feel the need to help others in the same way they were helped.

Beyond providing the satisfaction of helping others, careers in substance abuse counseling can offer unique camaraderie with co-workers because of the sensitive and sometimes stressful nature of the job, the variety of dealing with different clients each day, and opportunities for continuous learning.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

The most common path to becoming a substance abuse counselor is to obtain an education, such as a substance abuse counseling degree online or online addiction counseling degree.

The BLS notes that most positions in this field require at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited substance abuse counseling school, although educational requirements vary widely depending on a position’s job duties. Where some positions only require a high school diploma, for example, advanced positions often require a master’s degree in an area related to addiction studies.

1.Complete an Online Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field

Although some colleges and universities offer both on-campus and online substance abuse counseling degrees, others do not. Consequently, aspiring counselors will be well served by completing an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as social work, psychology, sociology, or human services.

Undergraduate coursework should include classes in developmental psychology and related areas. Coursework in addiction psychology, social psychology, biopsychology, and cognitive psychology may also help prepare students for a counseling career or further education. Some programs may have practicum or fieldwork requirements.

Full-time students often find they can complete their substance abuse counselor degree online in four years. 

2.Complete a Graduate-Level Substance Abuse Counseling Program

Individuals interested in becoming a licensed substance abuse counselor will need to complete a master’s degree in a related field, such as counseling, clinical counseling, or psychology. Since licensing requirements vary from state to state, students will want to ensure the program they’re interested in meets the educational requirements set forth by the state in which they wish to practice.

Most full-time students find they can complete a master’s degree in counseling in 2-3 years. The average time to complete a doctoral degree is 4-6 years, depending on a student’s rate of study.

The curriculum in a graduate degree is more major-oriented than that of an undergraduate program. For example, most master’s in counseling programs introduce students to the different therapeutic aspects of substance abuse counseling.

Additionally, most master’s programs require students to participate in supervised clinical practice, which provides real-world experience in the field.

3.Gain Professional Counseling Experience

Upon completing a master’s degree, aspiring addiction professionals must gain additional clinical experience. Clinical hours must be completed under the supervision of a licensed counselor, and the number of clinical hours needed for state licensure varies widely.

For example, individuals who wish to become licensed in California must complete a minimum of 3,000 hours of supervised, post-degree clinical counseling. Individuals who wish to become licensed in Florida must complete 2-years of post-master’s supervised experience under a board-approved supervisor. 

4.Get Licensed

Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, all states require counselors in private practice to have completed a master’s degree and between 2,000 and 4,000 supervised clinical practice hours. Applicants must also pass a state licensing exam. Contact information for state licensing boards is available online through the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network. 


Other Types of Addictions Counseling

Addiction counseling goes beyond addiction treatment for drug and/or alcohol dependency. 

Gambling Addiction Counseling

Addiction counselors who choose this career path work with individuals who are addicted to gambling. Similar to individuals who suffer from drug or alcohol dependency, compulsive gamblers may engage in destructive behavior that can lead to financial ruin and relationship issues. In some instances, an individual’s gambling debts can lead to the loss of their home or business. 

Sex Addiction Counseling

Individuals who engage in compulsive sexual behavior, because of its negative consequences, may pursue sex addiction counseling. Examples of compulsive sexual behavior may include prioritizing sex over work, friends, and family; frequent, unprotected sex; voyeurism; excessive sexting; and compulsive use of pornography. 

Social Media Addiction Counseling

Social media addiction counselors work with individuals who are excessive compulsive users of social networking sites. It’s currently estimated that as many as 5-10% of Americans meet this diagnostic criteria, according to research from California State University. Social media addiction mimics other types of addictions in that it can lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as unpleasant physical symptoms, anger, depression, and anxiety, among others. 

Relationship Addiction Counseling

Individuals who find they consistently jump from relationship to relationship, because they feel incomplete unless they have a partner, may seek the help of a counselor who specializes in relationship addiction. Compulsive relationship behavior may lead individuals to stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships because they need a partner to validate their self-worth.

Shopping Addiction Counseling

Compulsive shoppers may seek help from a shopping addiction counselor. Symptoms of compulsive shopping (an obsessive, constant need to shop) may include the purchase of unwanted or unnecessary items, extreme credit card debt, and psychological withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and depression when shopping is reduced. 

Make a Difference as a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse is a significant problem in the U.S. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 20 million people aged 12 and up had a substance abuse problem or a substance use disorder. Substance abuse issues are also related to a host of other ills, including family disruptions, domestic violence and child abuse, financial struggles, and crime.

Drug and alcohol counselors are in high demand to help address these and other problems. Experienced mental health counselors who have an in-person or online substance abuse counseling degree can provide these individuals with the tools they need to live happy, productive lives. 

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Addiction Center, “What Is Social Media Addiction?”

BetterTeam, Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description
California Board of Behavioral Sciences, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
California State University, “The Growing Case for Social Media Addiction”
Career Explorer, “What Does a Drug & Alcohol Counselor Do?”
Career Explorer, “What Does a Rehabilitation Center Counselor Do?”
Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
GoodTherapy, Sex Addiction
Healthline, “Constantly Chasing the Euphoria of New Love? You Might Be ‘Addicted’”
National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents”
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States”
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Substance Abuse
Soberlink, “Why Substance Abuse Counseling is a Fulfilling Career”
Verywell Mind, “5 Triggers of Relapse and How to Avoid Them”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
Youth.Gov, Prevention

List of Substance Abuse Counseling Programs

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