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6 steps to launching a career in substance abuse counseling

substance abuse counselor sitting across her patient looking at her notes

Substance abuse counseling can be a gratifying career that allows you to help others reclaim a happy and healthy life that has otherwise been affected by addiction.

You get to help people when they are most in need and be a part of their journey to sobriety. This field does come with its fair share of challenges, however, but it’s also a rewarding profession in consistently high demand. With drug overdose deaths on the rise, the need for passionate substance abuse counselors has never been greater.

In This Article

Almost 92,000 people died from a drug-involved overdose in 2020. Despite small dips in some years, the annual number of overdose deaths has steadily increased since 1999 and is on track to continue to grow.

The recent pandemic is partly to blame, as researchers have identified an increase in substance use and drug overdoses since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in 2020. As a substance abuse professional, you can help prevent lives from being lost or devastated by addiction.


What is a substance abuse counselor?

A professional who helps people overcome their struggles with substance abuse and addiction. They utilize various therapy methods to help others mitigate and overcome their addiction through individual, group and/or family support sessions.

Substance abuse counselors are sometimes also referred to as addiction or chemical dependency counselors. These names can usually be used interchangeably.

Addiction counselors, however, may counsel others with a wide range of addictions beyond substance abuse, such as gambling, video gaming, or sexual addictions. In other words, all substance abuse counselors are addiction counselors, but the opposite is not necessarily true.


Why pursue substance abuse counseling?

Besides the positive impact, they can make on the well-being of an individual, substance abuse counselors are important because they can also have a positive impact on their communities at large. When people struggling with substance abuse get the help that they need, it can lead to:

  • Reductions in crime rates
  • Reductions in domestic violence, which is often fueled by substance abuse
  • Safer roads if there are fewer intoxicated drivers
  • Decreases in substance-related hospitalizations

Steps to become a substance abuse counselor

Earn your degree.

person reading a book in a library

Most substance abuse counselors need a degree in counseling and/or addiction studies to eventually qualify for licensure. It depends on your state’s requirements, however, and you may only need a certificate, or associate or bachelor’s degree to qualify for some entry-level positions that work alongside licensed counselors.

Regardless of how far up the career ladder you want to go, you should get a degree to learn about the science behind addiction as well as how to help others and manage cases effectively. You can start by utilizing our widget to search for programs near you.

Consider an advanced degree (optional).

graduate extending diploma and graduate hat

Some states require counselors to have at least a master’s degree to get licensed. Regardless of whether an advanced degree is necessary for you, having one could make you a stand-out professional in the field and expand the number of counseling positions available to you.

Accrue supervised counseling hours.

substance abuse counselor discussion a session with supervisor

Counselors need a certain number of hours of supervised experience to eventually get a state-issued license. The number of hours varies by state and counseling position but generally hovers around 2,000 hours in most places.

Pass any necessary substance abuse exams.

pencil and paper exam on a white desk next to an open laptop

Many states require substance abuse counselors to pass an exam to apply for licensures, such as the Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) exam administered by the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium. This is just one common example—be sure to check with your state’s licensing board to determine what they need from you.

Apply for licensure in your state.

a judges hammer sits across a person working on their laptop

If you’ve completed the necessary education and experience requirements in your state, you can apply for a license. Some states have specific licenses for addiction counselors, while others require you to have a general counseling license.

Apply for professional certification.

woman sitting in her living room filling our a form with a focused stare

There are several voluntary certifications available to substance abuse and addiction counselors. Certifications offered by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP), for example, are only available to those that already have a license and have practiced for some time.


What does a substance abuse professional do?

Your job as a substance abuse counselor will vary depending on where you work and what type of counseling you may be specializing in. However, every counselor has a shared goal: help others reach and maintain sobriety. To help people reclaim their natural states, most counselors generally have similar job descriptions and responsibilities, which include:

Evaluate and assess a client’s needs and goals.


This involves determining whether they are a good candidate for treatment.

Develop a treatment plan.


Determine what type of treatment is best for the individual and help them form a roadmap to sobriety and independence.

Counsel the individual(s).


This may be done through one-on-one, group, or family sessions. You’ll help the client develop the skills needed to recover and maintain their sobriety, as well as identify any behaviors or obstacles interfering with their recovery. You’ll teach them how to cope with stress, rebuild relationships and manage other social-emotional problems that may be contributing to their addiction.

Refer clients and/or their families to other helpful resources.


This could include job placement services, support groups, housing resources, or anything else that the client may need to succeed.

Document clients’ progress and amend the treatment plan as needed.


They must thoroughly keep track of clients’ progress, especially if they intend to refer a client to any other services that require proof of the client’s need.

Conduct outreach.


Many counselors may also work in their community to spread awareness about substance abuse and the resources that are out there to help those who may be struggling.

Typical work environments

There are many different settings where your skills can be put to use. You may enjoy some workplaces more than others if you want to work with certain groups of people—for example, if you’re interested in working with incarcerated adults you may want to work at a correctional facility. Some of the places you could work at include:

  • Hospitals
  • Inpatient or outpatient mental health and addiction treatment centers
  • Schools
  • Detox centers
  • Prisons/correctional facilities
  • Telehealth
  • State or local health departments
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Private practice

Can I become one if I used to have a substance abuse problem?

In most cases, yes—many people that have recovered from addiction enter a counseling career to help others. Someone that has undergone the recovery process can make a wonderful counselor because they understand what it’s like to struggle with addiction. They may have an easier time relating to clients and vice versa. 

Many addiction education programs explicitly state, however, that if you have struggled with addiction in the past, it is strongly recommended that you have been in recovery for at least one year before enrolling.


What are the educational requirements and options?

There’s no exact degree you need to be a substance abuse counselor, and there are many different degrees available to someone who wants to enter the field of addiction counseling. That being said, most states require at least an associate degree to eventually obtain licensure. In addition, some professional certifications require that you have a certain degree, and private practice counselors also have their own requirements.

In short, the degree you need to be a substance abuse counselor depends on what type of counseling job you want, your state’s licensure requirements, and the requirements for any certifications you may choose to pursue.

If you aren’t sure where to start, it may be helpful to look at the Addiction Professional Education & Career Ladder document made by SAMHSA and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. to see what you may be qualified to do as an addiction professional based on your level of education.

Certificate programs


Some schools offer certificate programs in substance abuse counseling. These programs are typically offered by community colleges or technical schools and may take anywhere from six months to two years to complete.

Certain certificate programs require admittance to the college and the completion of certain prerequisite courses, or that you already have a degree. Others simply request that you apply to the program and do not require any prior coursework. 

Certificate programs can be a great introduction to the field or supplement your existing education. If you have a degree in another field, a certificate could give you the credits you may need in addiction counseling courses to apply for professional certification or license.

Associate degrees


There are associate degrees in addiction studies which can also serve as a good introduction to the field and give you a sense of what you’ll do as a substance abuse counselor. Most associate degrees take approximately two years of full-time study to complete. You’ll learn the psychological foundations of addiction and the basics of counseling. Many of these programs require you to complete a practicum project working alongside a substance abuse professional.

An associate degree may be the only education you need to qualify for some entry-level counseling jobs or other positions that work closely with counselors, such as:

  • Detox technicians
  • Community health workers
  • Counseling support staff
  • Outreach coordinators

Bachelor’s degrees


There are many bachelor’s degrees in addiction studies, but that’s not the only major that would benefit a prospective substance abuse counselor. Many schools offer degrees in psychology and/or counseling with a concentration in addiction, which is another popular choice. It typically takes four years of full-time study to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s degree programs also usually require students to do some sort of practicum project outside of school as part of the curriculum. Graduates are typically qualified for entry-level counseling positions or are poised for graduate school.

Master’s degrees


Many counselors choose to pursue a master’s degree because it is the minimum education needed to apply for several behavioral health licenses in many states, such as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Substance abuse counselors do not need this title, but it’s common for people to pursue a general counseling license in addition to any substance abuse credentials that may be available in their state.

Master’s degree programs typically take about two years to complete and require students to complete a practicum and/or thesis project to graduate.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in private practice must be licensed. Although individual licensing requirements vary by state, all states require private counselors to have a master’s degree. If you eventually want to open or participate in private practice, you will need a master’s degree.

There are several types of master’s degrees you might choose from, including:

  • Addiction studies
  • Social work
  • Counseling
  • Clinical psychology

Doctoral degrees


Some counselors choose to advance their education to the highest level and earn a doctoral degree in counseling and/or addiction studies. While a degree of this level is not required, it may be a good fit for someone who wants to work on psychological research, teach at the postsecondary level or simply expand their knowledge and become a better counselor.

Program accreditation

To ensure that you are receiving a high-quality education, it’s a good idea to make sure that your degree program(s) is accredited. Check for approval by the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) for any programs in addiction studies. NASAC is one of only two organizations that accredit addiction studies programs and is the only one that accredits all academic degree levels, from certificate to doctoral programs.


How to obtain substance abuse counselor certification

There are many different certifications available to someone working in the substance abuse counseling field. These certifications are voluntary, but some employers may require that you have a certification so that they know you have undergone a certain standard of education and training.

Some states may also require you to have a certification to apply for a license. The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP) and International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) are probably the two most ubiquitously recognized certifying agencies nationwide.

National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC)

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP) offers several certification credentials that are recognized at the national and international levels. Having an NCCAP certification demonstrates your competency and your commitment to the profession because it shows you have satisfied certain education and experience requirements. Each of these credentials requires passing its own examination.

NCCAP offers the following three foundational credentials:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II)
  • Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)

All of these certifications have their own eligibility requirements, but the biggest difference between them is the education level needed to sit for their respective exams. NCAC I is intended for people who have a high school diploma or higher; NCAC II is for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the MAC is for people who have a master’s or doctoral degree. You can move up through the credentials as you earn more education and experience.

In order to sit for these exams, you must already be licensed as a substance abuse disorder/addiction counselor or professional counselor, such as a social worker, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, or certified labor assistance professional by a state or credentialing authority. 

The NCCAP also offers several specialization credentials:

  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor (NCAAC)
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS) 

Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC)

The International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) is another agency that is often recognized as offering one of the leading substance abuse counselor certifications. According to the IC&RC, the Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) credential is their most widely recognized credential.

You must pass an exam to earn the credential, which is administered by one of IC&RC’s Member Boards. These Member Boards determine the eligibility requirements to take the exam. The IC&RC also offers a higher-level certification called the Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor (AADC).


Licensing requirements

Most states require substance abuse counselors to have a license to practice, but not every state (or even every employer) requires substance abuse counselors to have the exact same type of license. Some states have licenses specific to substance abuse counseling, such as a Substance Use Disorder Professional (SUDP) license in Washington state.

Other states simply require substance abuse or addiction counselors to have a more general counseling license, like a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW), to name a few. It really depends on the requirements of your state–check with the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) to see what your state’s licensing board requires to become a substance abuse counselor.

It’s common for people with a psychology, social work, or medical background to make the switch to substance abuse counseling. Being licensed in one of these professions may make it easy to obtain a substance abuse counselor license in your state because you’ve probably already completed an appropriate degree and some of the counseling hours necessary to apply for a license:

  • Licensed advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNPs)
  • Licensed marriage and family therapists
  • Licensed mental health counselors
  • Licensed social workers
  • Licensed independent clinical social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Osteopathic and allopathic physicians and physician assistants

If you already have a career in one of these fields, you may need to take additional post-secondary courses in addiction studies to qualify for a license. You may also need to complete additional supervised substance abuse counseling hours.


Substance abuse counselor salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors as a whole is expected to grow $48,520 through 2031, much faster than the average across all occupations. One explanation, the BLS cites, may be due to states seeking counseling services rather than jail time for people with addiction or other mental health concerns.

The recent pandemic may also be responsible for any job growth that occurs since it has adversely affected mental health nationwide. Knowing that poor mental health can exacerbate addictions, the demand for substance abuse counseling services is bound to increase.

The top-paying states for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are most concentrated in the west. Utah and Alaska are the highest-paying states, followed by some exceptions with the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.  Most of the top ten paying metropolitan areas in the country are in Utah, Nevada, and California.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

National data

Median Salary: $48,520

Projected job growth: 22.1%

10th Percentile: $30,870

25th Percentile: $38,520

75th Percentile: $61,660

90th Percentile: $77,980

Projected job growth: 22.1%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $38,830 $29,430 $61,140
Alaska $61,040 $37,440 $97,740
Arizona $48,930 $36,940 $76,630
Arkansas $38,660 $27,520 $77,510
California $49,630 $36,750 $98,560
Colorado $49,630 $36,330 $80,580
Connecticut $48,900 $36,330 $81,610
Delaware $46,910 $30,730 $63,340
District of Columbia $60,600 $31,370 $96,870
Florida $46,680 $30,130 $76,880
Georgia $44,080 $30,320 $63,310
Hawaii $51,060 $38,000 $80,580
Idaho $49,360 $30,690 $79,420
Illinois $47,640 $35,100 $80,030
Indiana $46,230 $30,640 $76,090
Iowa $47,730 $30,090 $77,460
Kansas $48,330 $30,810 $63,460
Kentucky $44,250 $28,820 $62,870
Louisiana $37,510 $25,290 $59,460
Maine $48,960 $30,840 $100,040
Maryland $55,480 $36,650 $78,310
Massachusetts $48,960 $37,070 $78,540
Michigan $48,820 $31,800 $76,650
Minnesota $48,980 $37,960 $65,510
Mississippi $37,580 $23,700 $62,670
Missouri $38,920 $26,140 $60,310
Montana $46,790 $24,510 $63,800
Nebraska $49,370 $30,640 $78,700
Nevada $59,940 $30,640 $95,790
New Hampshire $46,640 $30,720 $68,520
New Jersey $60,000 $44,470 $92,620
New Mexico $56,750 $36,230 $96,710
New York $49,650 $31,310 $78,940
North Carolina $48,640 $29,960 $76,670
North Dakota $60,920 $36,750 $76,720
Ohio $47,510 $30,600 $76,950
Oklahoma $47,500 $29,200 $76,720
Oregon $59,060 $37,140 $94,800
Pennsylvania $46,790 $30,690 $75,060
Rhode Island $60,300 $31,990 $97,740
South Carolina $38,110 $28,580 $73,730
South Dakota $39,070 $30,970 $61,330
Tennessee $37,700 $27,780 $61,380
Texas $46,470 $29,360 $76,670
Utah $60,460 $30,690 $101,100
Vermont $47,320 $38,360 $63,340
Virginia $48,820 $36,750 $76,670
Washington $49,360 $37,070 $78,090
West Virginia $38,100 $29,530 $60,340
Wisconsin $48,100 $32,770 $76,650
Wyoming $60,130 $38,830 $96,440

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

How does the pay compare to similar professions?

Substance abuse counselors are one of many professionals working in behavioral health. Their median annual wage may not be as high as some other behavioral health professionals or social work positions, but your individual salary depends on numerous factors such as location, type of employer, job description, and more.

Career Median Annual Salary
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $48,520
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $49,130
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $60,250
Health Education Specialists $60,600
Social and Human Service Assistants $37,610

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton
Staff Writer

December 1st, 2022.