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What It’s Really like to Be an Addiction Counselor

What It’s Really like to Be an Addiction Counselor

Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to become an addiction counselor? To help people struggling with substance abuse disorders regain their sobriety and return to happy, productive lives is an awesome responsibility, but it is also a rewarding career that actually allows you to make a real difference in the world. Let’s take a closer look about just what an addiction counselor does, how to become an addiction counselor, and what to expect if you enter this challenging and fulfilling field.

First Things First – What Is an Addiction Counselor?

Addiction counselors – also called substance abuse counselors – provide support, counseling, and treatment for individuals struggling with addictive or behavioral disorders. They also provide educational and support services for family members who have been affected by a loved one’s addiction. The duties of a substance abuse counselor often entail:

  • Evaluating incoming patients’ mental and physical health
  • Creating individualized treatment plans
  • Working with patients in both individual counseling sessions and in peer group therapy
  • Tracking patients’ progress and adjusting the treatment plan as necessary
  • Making appropriate referrals when additional services are required

Addiction counselors work collaboratively with other service providers – medical doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, and other therapists – to ensure that the patients’ needs are being met. It is also often necessary to cooperate with law enforcement, the Court, and probation or parole officers, depending upon the patient’s circumstances.

What Sort of Conditions Does an Addiction Counselor Treat?

A professional substance abuse counselor might provide treatment for a wide range of addictive disorders, including, but not limited to:

  • Substance Abuse
    • Alcoholism, properly called Alcohol Use Disorder
    • Drug addiction – marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, synthetic “designer” drugs, hallucinogens, inhalants
    • Prescription Medication Misuse – opioid painkillers, benzodiazepine tranquilizers, ADHD stimulants
    • Nicotine Dependence
  • Behavioral Addictions

What Personal Qualities Does an Addiction Counselor Need?

There is no such thing as the “typical” substance abuser—the disease of addiction can strike ANYONE. Drug and alcohol counselors need strong interpersonal skills to deal with a wide variety of personality types from every walk of life. Good addiction counselors are also:

  • Effective Speakers: They need to be able to communicate well with their patients, expressing important concepts in a manner that is understandable and relatable.
  • Good Listeners: Communication is a two-way street. Counselors must hear what is—and isn’t—being said by their patients to fully comprehend and treat any problems.
  • Patient: Every person makes progress in recovery at their own pace. Furthermore, addicts and alcoholics are often in emotional turmoil—it is the counselor’s job to remain calm.
  • Compassionate: By empathizing and understanding what their patients are going through, good drug counselors will create an accepting, non-judgmental space where patients feel safe.

For many aspiring drug counselors, having compassion for struggling addicts comes easier than you might think. One of the most wonderful and unique aspects of the field of addiction recovery is the fact that a large percentage of counselors once were themselves actively addicted. Becoming a recovery professional is their way of giving back. And it works – knowing that their counselor was once where they are, yet was still able to recover and live a productive life, forges a closer patient/provider bond while also instilling greater confidence in the recovery process.

What are the Education and Experience Requirements for a Drug Counselor?

The educational and experiential requirements for drug counselor certification or licensing varies from state to state. Most state agencies grant multiple levels of certification:

  • Paraprofessional—High School Diploma or GED
  • Certified/Licensed Professional—Bachelor’s Degree in a relevant discipline, such as Behavioral Science, Addictionology, Chemical Dependency, etc.
  • Advanced Certification – Master’s Degree

Regardless of the degree level, professional counselors much also attain hundreds of hours of education specifically devoted to the core functions of chemical dependency counseling, ethics, and legal compliance. They must also keep their skills current by completing mandatory continuing education every year. In addition to education, aspiring substance abuse counselors must have several thousand hours of supervised work experience working directly with alcoholics and drug addicts. Finally, before certification is granted, the person must pass the appropriate exam for the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals.

Is It Possible to Earn Drug Counselor Certification Online?

It is possible to earn an online substance abuse counseling degree at any level, from paraprofessional certification to a Master’s. There are a few caveats, however. Always thoroughly check a program’s accreditations, which demonstrate their adherence to accepted educational standards. For your certification or degree to have any real value, the program must be recognized by:

  • State Licensing Boards
  • Student Financial Aid Organizations
  • Other Accredited Schools
  • Future Employers

Here’s the thing—not all accreditations are created equal. Some programs are only recognized regionally, which may or may not translate to your specific state. Your best resources to verify a particular program are your state’s licensing agency, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the US Department of Education. Also, since certification/licensure requires a huge amount of practical work experience and supervision, you must double-check that the online program has a real-world relationship with local resources that can assist you with getting that experience.

Drug and Alcohol Counselor Job Market and Outlook

Right now, there are over 24 MILLION people in America struggling with a substance abuse disorder. Only about 11% of those who need help actually get the professional treatment they need, however. This means that there is a pressing need for trained and experienced addiction counselors, and the need is only projected to get significantly bigger. As of 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 94,900 substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor jobs in America. By 2024, that sector is expected to grow by 22%, adding an additional 21,200 jobs. And that is just the specific sector of addiction/behavioral counselors. There are other related fields that can use some of the same education and training that will also experience growth as the need for specialized professional services also expands.

  • Addiction Psychologists +19%
  • Addiction Nurses +16%
  • Addiction Counseling Assistants +11%

Addiction Counselor Job Opportunities

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the states that employ the most substance abuse, counselors. As of May 2016, the Top 5, along with their annual mean salaries, were:

  • California (9050) – $44,450
  • New York (7600) – $50,350
  • Pennsylvania (6730) – $42,890
  • Massachusetts (5010) – $45,520
  • Florida (4440) – $46,010

Alcohol and Drug Counselor Salary and Wages

As of May 2016, the median yearly wage for a substance abuser counselor in America was $41,070, but the difference between the highest and lowest earners was significant. The top 10% of earners mad over $65,080, while the bottom 10% made less than $26,210. Here is a breakdown comparing the average yearly salary for addiction counselors, by industry:

  • Hospitals–$48,300
  • Government–$45,990
  • Outpatient Programs–$39,820
  • Private Practice–$39,130
  • Residential Facilities–$37,050

Not only does the industry matter, in terms of compensation, but so does the location. Here are the annual mean salaries of the Top 5 states that pay addiction counselors the most, along with the number of counselors employed:

  • New Mexico – $59,090, (710 jobs)
  • Alaska – $54,280, (290 jobs)
  • North Dakota – $53,600, (300 jobs)
  • New Jersey – $53,490, (2840 jobs)
  • New York – $50,350, (7600 jobs)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also lists the American metropolitan areas with the highest annual mean salaries for drug and alcohol counselors:

  • Provo-Orem, UT – $82,300
  • Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL – $74,080
  • Madison, WI – $68,020
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA – $62,190
  • Santa Rosa, CA – $61,390

Where Do Addiction Counselors Work?

Drug and alcohol counselors can work in many different work environments. According to the United States Department of Labor, the biggest employers are:

Those are by no means the only addiction counseling opportunities. Other possibilities include:

What is it Like to be a Licensed Addiction Counselor?

Make no mistake—substance abuse counseling is a demanding career, and you should have realistic expectations about what your daily work experience should be like. As a rule, substance abuse counselors:

  • Work full-time.
  • Typically have schedule demands that include daytimes, evenings, and weekends.
  • Have heavy caseloads.
  • Often have limited resources – i.e., insurance limits, lack of federal funds, time constraints, etc.
  • Work with patients in personal distress or angry at their situation, making treatment more difficult.
  • Experience a great deal of job-related stress.

But all that being said, alcohol and drug counseling is also an extremely rewarding career. When a person lost to active addiction is able to successfully recover and turn their life around, you will feel tremendous personal satisfaction at the role you played. Yes, it is the recovering patient who does the work, applies the lessons, makes the necessary life changes, and resists the urge to drink and use again while they move forward on their sober journey, but it does give you a sense of professional accomplishment to know that you helped them stay on the right path.