How to Become a Substance Abuse CounselorHow to Become a Substance Abuse CounselorHow to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse and addiction can have various negative impacts, both on individuals and society at large. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs is costly to our nation, exacting more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity, and healthcare.”

A substance abuse counselor talks to a patient.

Substance abuse counselors play an integral part in helping their clients through the addiction recovery process. Because substance abuse can result in various adverse effects for addicts and those around them, the role of substance abuse counselors is essential. From evaluating clients’ mental health to helping them cope with their symptoms, substance abuse counselors work with individuals in various stages of treatment.

A prospective student or professional interested in how to become a substance abuse counselor may benefit from pursuing a degree in a human services field, such as an online Bachelor of Arts in Sociology.

What does a substance abuse counselor do?

Substance abuse counselors work with clients who struggle with addictions. They help individual clients establish personalized treatment plans and regularly check up on their progress. Since these professionals advise people from diverse backgrounds who may abuse different kinds of substances, treatment plans will vary.

Substance abuse counselors evaluate clients’ physical and mental health as they establish treatment plans, recording clients’ behavior to monitor their responses throughout the process. Substance abuse counselors understand the importance of ensuring their clients’ environmental safety during recovery, and they help clients avoid dangerous situations, people, and past behaviors that might lead to relapse.

Studies have shown the benefits of substance abuse counselors working with clients’ families and friends. When a patient has a support system that understands the importance of recovery, outcomes improve. Substance abuse counselors can also help their clients get additional support through professional and social outlets, for instance, connecting those who are recovering from alcoholism with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where they can establish a community of peers.

Steps to become a substance abuse counselor

The process of how individuals become substance abuse counselors varies. However, to qualify for the role, individuals should begin by earning a bachelor’s degree, such as one in sociology, psychology, social work, or a related field. During a degree program, students should become familiar with psychological principles, mental health counseling, social issues, the relationship between mental health and society, family relationships, and social work.

Those who are certain they want to pursue a counseling career can become more competitive by earning a master’s degree or postgraduate certificate in substance abuse or mental health. Some workplaces require a master’s degree, but different organizations have different requirements. However, all individuals interested in private practice substance abuse counseling must complete supervised clinical work and pass a state-issued exam to earn the license that allows them to practice, with specific requirements that vary by state.

Substance abuse counselor job outlook and salary

Professionals working in counseling, psychology, therapy, and social work are in high demand. The field for substance abuse counselors in particular is projected to grow by 22% between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), much faster than the projected 5% for all professions. The median annual salary of substance abuse counselors was $46,240 in 2019, according to the BLS. Salaries can be affected by location, education level, experience, and other factors.

Median annual salaries and specific job descriptions of substance abuse counselors also vary depending on facility type. While the BLS reports that the majority of substance abuse counselors work in outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, earning a median annual salary of $44,750 in 2019, they can also work in residential mental health and substance abuse facilities and hospitals, with a median annual salary of $39,690. Substance abuse counselors in hospitals often see clients daily and create more intensive treatment plans; in 2019, they earned a median annual salary of $49,100.

Earn your sociology degree

Substance abuse is an issue that continues to grow, impacting people, families, and communities across the nation. Professionals who are committed to helping people recover from addiction can have multiple positive impacts on individuals and on society.

If you’re interested in pursuing this rewarding career, consider Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. Courses such as Sociology of Health and Health Care, Mental Illness and Society, Social Issues in a Changing World, and Introduction to Social Work offer students a foundation that can lead to a successful career as a substance abuse counselor. Discover more today about how Maryville University can help you pursue your professional goals as you make a real difference in people’s lives.

Recommended Reading

Protecting Child Welfare and Preventing Abuse: A Guide for Social Workers and Educational Professionals

The Study of Human Nature: A Communication Degree vs. Sociology Degree

What Are Social Justice Issues?


Houston Chronicle, “What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?”

National Board for Certified Counselors, “Board Certification”

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Costs of Substance Abuse”

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Trends & Statistics”

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

Verywell Mind, “Successful Addiction Treatment Should Include Family Therapy”

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