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Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist Career Outlook

Drug and alcohol treatment specialists are in high demand. A look at the statistics regarding addiction help explain why.

In 2019, for example, 21.6 million people aged 12 and older in the U.S. — nearly 8% of the total U.S. population of 12-and-older individuals — reported needing treatment for a substance abuse disorder in the past year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). By comparison, that number is greater than the 2019 population of all but two U.S. states.

A drug and alcohol treatment specialist is holding hands with a circle of members during a group therapy session

Drug and alcohol treatment specialists help individuals struggling with addiction to overcome substance abuse. They accomplish this by identifying and changing the behavior associated with those issues. Those interested in pursuing this impactful career should explore earning a bachelor’s degree in a discipline such as psychology, which can provide the skills and education to help substance abusers.

Job Duties of a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist

The Mayo Clinic describes drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, as a disease affecting a person’s brain and behavior. Drug addiction leaves an individual unable to control their use of a drug or medication. As a result, abusers often need larger doses of the drug to feel good and experience withdrawal without it. People can become addicted to all types of drugs, ranging from painkillers and marijuana to alcohol and nicotine.

The behavior of those with a substance abuse disorder can lead to employment, health, legal, and relationship problems. To overcome addiction — and its negative consequences — individuals may need an organized treatment program. Drug and alcohol treatment specialists can help addicts change their behavior and lead happier, healthier lives.

Responsibilities of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialists

The job responsibilities of a drug and alcohol treatment specialist can include interventions and crisis responses. During interventions, the specialist may act on behalf of a person’s family or friends to encourage the person to seek treatment. Crisis responses assist individuals whose behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others, prevents them from caring for themselves, or interferes with how they function in the community.

Once an individual with a substance abuse disorder begins treatment, a drug and alcohol treatment specialist assesses the person’s level of drug dependency and develops a plan for care. As the specialist considers how to treat the addiction, they weigh factors such as the client’s past experiences, current living arrangements, family support, and the prevalence of drug use among their friends.

Working with clients individually or in group or family sessions, drug and alcohol treatment specialists often use behavioral therapy, which aims to change drug and alcohol behavior through counseling. They teach clients healthy coping mechanisms to handle stress and challenges, help them repair relationships, and assist them in reestablishing their careers.

Behavioral therapy focuses on:

  • Developing the skills to reduce drug or alcohol use
  • Building a strong support network
  • Setting goals for recovery
  • Using coping skills

Addiction treatment may pair behavioral counseling with other approaches, such as 12-step programs based on the Alcoholics Anonymous system that encourage people to work with peers to overcome addiction.

Because addiction can touch many aspects of people’s lives, drug and alcohol treatment specialists may collaborate with a variety of other individuals — including other mental health professionals and physicians — to treat substance abuse disorder. Some specialists work with clients who have been ordered by a court judge to receive treatment for addiction.

Workplaces of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialists

Drug and alcohol treatment specialists assist their clients in outpatient or residential settings. Among the workplaces for these professionals are:

  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Other treatment facilities

Salary and Job Outlook for a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides median annual salary and job outlook information for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. Following are details about pay and demand for these professionals.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist Salary

The BLS reports the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in May 2020 was $47,660. Salaries vary according to factors such as the candidate’s experience and the job location. The BLS indicates those working in government and hospital roles earned a median salary of more than $50,000.

Some states pay considerably more than the BLS median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. According to the BLS, the top-paying states for these roles, listed with their May 2020 median salaries, are as follows:

  • Nevada — $68,560
  • Utah — $62,250
  • Alaska — $61,980
  • New Jersey — $61,310
  • Oregon — $59,800

Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist Job Outlook

The BLS projects the demand for professionals who assist with treating drug and alcohol addiction will increase 25% between 2019 and 2029. By comparison, the average projected growth for all occupations during that period is 4%.

Factors driving strong demand for drug and alcohol treatment include those listed below.

  • More people need help for substance abuse disorders. The reported need for substance abuse help in the U.S. was steady between 2016 and 2019, according to SAMHSA. But COVID-19 could change that trend. Months after the coronavirus outbreak, in June 2020, 13% of Americans reported they had started or increased substance use to help them cope, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, many other societal factors continue to play a role in the complex substance abuse landscape.
  • More communities are emphasizing mental health assistance in lieu of incarceration for drug offenders. With organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse advocating for the effectiveness and cost savings of treating substance abuse rather than punishment, the nation is seeing an elevated interest in the treatment approach.

Steps to Become a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist

Drug and alcohol treatment specialists typically must have at least a bachelor’s degree, although education requirements vary according to position and location. Many individuals in this career hold a bachelor’s in psychology, which generally focuses on areas such as behavioral psychology, multicultural psychology, critical thinking, and statistics. Other areas of expertise helpful for this role include:

  • Counseling
  • Crisis intervention
  • Ethics
  • Program evaluation
  • Records management

Licensing and certification requirements differ depending on the state, with some requiring job candidates to pass an exam, and others requiring an advanced degree and designated levels of experience. Certifications are available through organizations including the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders, and the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals.

All types of individuals may become drug and alcohol treatment specialists, with the proper education and a high level of passion and commitment. In fact, those who have personal experience with addiction may find their insight helpful in treating people struggling with substance abuse disorder.

Be Brave: Pursue a Career That Makes a Difference

If you’re ready to take a bold step toward helping people overcome addiction and live happier, healthier lives, consider exploring a career as a drug and alcohol treatment specialist. Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program can provide a strong foundation for this in-demand and rewarding career. The program emphasizes contemporary psychological concepts through research and practical experience, with the flexibility and convenience of online learning.

Explore how the Maryville online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree can help you achieve your professional goals.

Recommended Reading

Degree in Sociology vs. Psychology: Choosing a Career to Promote Change

Multicultural Counseling: Types, Strategies, and Techniques

Psychology vs. Counseling

Sources

American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders, Certification

American Addiction Centers, “12-Step Programs: 12 Steps to Recovery for Drug and Alcohol Treatment”

American Addiction Centers, “Qualifications for Substance Abuse Specialists”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Chegg CareerMatch, Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist

Mayo Clinic, Drug Addiction (Substance Abuse Disorder)

National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals, Certification

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help”

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Principles of Effective Treatment”

Reports and Data, “Drug Addiction Treatment Market by Drug Type, by Treatment, by End User 2017-2027”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Census Bureau, United States 2019 Population Estimates by State