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How Can I Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?


Substance Abuse Addiction Counseling

Dear Psychologist:

I think I really want to help people who are recovering from drug problems! What kind of degree do I need for this? What is this job called? Do I need to become a psychologist to work with addictions?

Thanks, Tim


Dear Tim,

It sounds like you are someone who cares about people and wants to help them with some of their most difficult problems. The substance abuse field-- helping people who have addictions to alcohol and drugs-- can be a challenging one. Clients with these issues often struggle to maintain sober and drug-free. Relapse is a common occurrence and you must be prepared to address it. Yet as a rehabilitation counselor, when you can help someone overcome an addiction you have made a positive contribution indeed.

Education Needed for Substance Abuse Treatment

You can work with people who have substance abuse problems even with an associate’s degree. This kind of job would be at an entry level and you would likely work in conjunction with trained clinicians. You can also be a psychologist with a doctoral degree in psychology and specialize in addiction issues. The most typical route, however, is to become a certified counselor with a master’s degree.

Where do you find these classes? Many traditional campuses will have this kind of training. You can also look at online counselor degree programs. Make sure that your program is accredited, that it indeed qualifies you to sit for the licensing exam, and that you get supervised training in the field. If you choose an online program, it will need to have a "hands on" component to meet this criteria.

Following the completion of your degree, your next step will be to get licensed in addictions counseling. The Certification Board for Addiction Professionals is a good place to start.

Where Substance Abuse Counselors Work

Professionals who work with substance abuse disorders need to have a thorough understanding of addiction issues. Therefore, even a clinician with excellent therapy skills will still need specialized training to enter this field. This will include coursework, proper certification, and supervised experience with clients who have addictions.

Substance abuse counselors can work in all kinds of settings. They might treat patients in hospital settings, such as a detoxification unit or rehabilitation center. Often patients are treated in groups and there is also a component that involves the families. So the counselor will need to understand the dynamics of families as well.

Another place that substance abuse counselors work are in outpatient clinics. These clinics often have a sliding scale, take Medicare and Medicaid, and are open to the poorest clients. A patient might also choose to see a therapist in private practice who has experience with substance abuse issues. The therapist might take insurance, or clients pay out of pocket.

Other settings for substance abuse treatment include half-way homes, crisis centers, homeless shelters, and jails.

Good luck in your path towards becoming a substance abuse counselor. Research the options well, get some experience, find a school that is a good match, and you will be on your way.

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