Substance Abuse Counseling Job Description: What You'll Do

Substance abuse counselors can impact many people. Find out what your job will be like.

substance abuse counselor

Substance abuse counseling may have you working with a wide array of clients or you may choose to specialize in issues affecting a particular population, such as teens or veterans.

As a counselor, you'll listen to your clients describe their problems and what causes them to engage in addictive behavior. You'll discuss ways to cope and potentially incorporate methods, such as the 12-step program, to help clients toward recovery.

Because every patient is different and struggling with various degrees of addiction, you may find yourself working with some individuals in a crisis situation, while others will meet with you regularly as they recover.

If you're compassionate, patient and a problem-solver, you may find a rewarding career as a substance abuse counselor.

What does a substance abuse counselor do?

A substance abuse counselor is a support system for people with drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders and other behavioral issues. They teach individuals how to modify their behavior with the intention of full recovery. Because clients are susceptible to relapses, many substance abuse counselors work with clients on an on-going basis. 

Other duties include:

  • Meeting with clients to evaluate their health and substance problem
  • Identifying issues and create goals and treatment plans
  • Teaching clients coping mechanisms
  • Helping clients find jobs or reestablish their career
  • Leading group therapy sessions
  • Providing updates and progress reports to courts
  • Referring clients to support groups
  • Setting up aftercare plans
  • Meeting with family members and provide guidance and support

If you work specifically as a drug counselor, you'll have the same types of tasks, but you'll work strictly with clients suffering from drug abuse issues rather than eating disorders or gambling addictions.

What education or certification will I need to become a substance abuse counselor?

While a master's degree in counseling or social work is a common requirement to work as a substance abuse counselor, not every state requires this level of education. However, holding a higher degree allows you to offer more help and services to clients.

If career plan includes running a private practice, you will be required to hold a master's degree and complete up to 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Upon passing an exam, you'll be licensed to practice as a substance abuse counselor in your state. Check with your state for educational requirements even if you're not planning to operate a private practice.

Certification can be obtained from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Before you can take the exam, you'll need to complete two years of supervised field study after earning your master's degree.

Learn more about what you'll study

What career paths can I take as a substance abuse counselor?

Several factors will contribute to your career path as a substance abuse counselor. For example, holding a master's degree will generally provide more job prospects, including private practice.

Another factor is specialization. If you choose to become a substance abuse counselor with a focus on a certain demographic, your career path will dictated by that population's needs and location.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 edition, substance abuse counselor jobs are common in the following locations:

  • Hospitals
  • Individual and family services
  • Outpatient and residential mental health and substance abuse centers
  • State and local governments

If you work with children or teenagers, you could end up working in schools or after-school programs.

Learn about pay & job projections for substance abuse counselors.

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