Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

Alcohol and drug abuse is devastating to those who suffer from it and to their friends and families. Over 21 million Americans have at least one kind of addiction, with only 10 percent of them receiving any kind of treatment. The consequences of substance abuse disorders annually include 88,000 deaths due to alcohol, more than 47,000 deaths due to opiods, and more than 14,000 deaths due to heroin (Addiction Center  2022). Overcoming addiction is an uphill battle because of the chemical dependency and psychological issues at play. Substance abuse counselors are critical to helping clients find and maintain sobriety. 

Substance abuse counselors have received specialized training in counseling and the intricacies of substance abuse disorders and the techniques to help clients succeed. Certification and licensure are available in every state to ensure counselors in this field have a minimum level of education, training, and skill. 

Typical employers of substance abuse counselors include hospitals, inpatient and residential treatment centers, government agencies, nonprofits, and clinics. Counselors are expected to provide screening, assessment, treatment, counseling, and referrals to help clients meet their therapeutic goals. 

Education requirements for substance abuse counselors vary based on certification or license, job description, or place of employment. At a minimum, counselors in this field must graduate from high school or have a GED. Earning an undergraduate degree is very common, leading to more advanced certification or licensure and better job prospects. The most advanced certificates and licenses require graduate degrees. 

There has been a shift in some states in the treatment of alcohol and drug offender. Instead of requiring long jail times, an increasing number of sentences require strict substance abuse counseling. This change has been one of the driving factors in increased demand for substance abuse counselors. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), there is an anticipated 23 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2020 and 2030, which translates into 75,100 new jobs (including those in mental health counseling and behavioral disorders). 

The path to becoming a substance abuse counselor varies by state. Keep reading to learn what a typical career path looks like and a detailed list of state licensure requirements. 

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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol 

The path towards becoming a licensed or certified substance abuse counselor varies widely by state. Detailed state requirements can be found in the following section. 

Here are the most common steps required:

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

All substance abuse counselor certificates and licenses require applicants to graduate high school (or have obtained a GED). Students who want to pursue this career can start their education while still in high school by focusing on classes such as psychology, social sciences, biology, English, and math. Work experience can be gained by volunteering in the substance abuse counseling field. 

Step 2: Obtain an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree (Two to Four Years, Optional)

While a degree is not required in every state for a career as a substance abuse counselor, it can help aspiring professionals obtain more advanced certification or licensure and with job advancement. The most commonly earned degree for this field is addiction counseling, although degrees such as psychology, counseling, chemical dependency counseling, and other behavioral sciences can suffice. Some states require specific coursework, so students should check with their local board to learn the requirements.

Students should ensure the program they attend is accredited, as most states won’t accept degrees from unaccredited institutions. The program should be regionally accredited by an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education (USDE). Completing a program accredited by an entity such as the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) is required in some states.

Step 3:  Complete a Master’s degree (Two Years, Optional)

The most advanced substance abuse counselor certificates and licenses require applicants to have a master’s degree or higher. A master of science (MS) in addiction counseling is the most common degree for this field. There are numerous online master’s programs and on-campus options with flexible schedules, which allow students to pursue higher education in this field while still balancing work or family.

Step 4:  Complete Required Education (Varies by State)

Many states have specific education requirements for substance abuse counselors. These hours can range from 180 to over 300. Often, these hours can be completed as part of a degree program, but sometimes they are in addition to education already obtained. Most education requirements also have specific coursework to be completed, so prospective professionals should familiarize themselves with their state’s requirements.

Step 5: Complete Supervised Work Experience (Timelines Vary)

Depending on the level of certification or license, applicants can be required to complete supervised work experience. Trainee, intern, and associate licenses and certifications are often required to begin earning these hours. Requirements vary by state but can be as few as 1,000 hours or six months and 6,000 hours and three years. The number of hours required varies based on the level of certificate or license pursued.

Step 6: Pass State Licensing Exam (Timeline Varies)

Exams for substance abuse counselors are required in almost every state. Not all levels of certificates and licenses require testing. The most common tests required are the Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) exam from the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) or the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I) from the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP), in association with the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). 

More advanced licenses and certifications can require the Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (AADC) exam from the IC&RC or the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II) or the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) from the NAADAC. Many states also require candidates to pass a jurisprudence exam.

Passing an exam from IC&RC offers license and certificate reciprocity to other states that offer the same credential.

Step 7: Apply for Certificate or Licensure (Timelines Vary)

Once degree, education, work experience, and examination requirements have been met, candidates may apply to their local board for certification or licensure. Processing time can vary widely and applicants must wait to practice as a substance abuse counselor until they have received notification of approval. 

Licensing & Certification Requirements By State for Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

State Licensing Authority Eligibility & Details Renewal Requirements
Alabama

Alabama Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association (AADAA)


Alabama Association of Addiction Counselor Certification Board (AAACCB)

There are two certification bodies for substance abuse counselors in Alabama: the Alabama Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association (AADAA) and the Alabama Association of Addiction Counselor Certification Board (AAACCB).

Credentials issued by the AADAA include: Associate Addiction Professional (AAP), Certified Adolescent Alcohol & Drug Abuse Professional (CAADP), Alcohol Drug Counselor (ADC), Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor (AADC). Additional certification in criminal justice, prevention, and supervision can be earned through IC&RC examinations and relevant work experience.

Eligibility requirements for an AAP certification include:

  • 2,000 hours of work experience, including 150 supervision hours
  • 140 hours of education related to the four domains of substance abuse counseling, including four hours of HIV/AIDS and six hours of ethics
  • Passing score on state written exam
  • Signed code of ethics
  • Completed supervision form and three colleague forms
  • A completed application
  • $175 exam fee, $95 Counselor Certification Kit, and $250 application fee

CAADP certification candidates must:

  • Submit a portfolio of work experience
  • Have 6,000 hours of work experience (a bachelor’s can substitute for 2,000 hours of experience and a master’s can substitute for 4,000)
  • Complete 300 hours of supervision in four different domains
  • Complete 300 hours of education and training (six hours must be in ethics and four in HIV/AIDS)
  • Send three colleague evaluations
  • Complete supervisor evaluation
  • Pass state-level written exam
  • Pay $350 exam fee, $95 Counselor Certification Kit, and $250 application fee
  • Submit a completed application

ADC certification candidates must:

  • Submit a portfolio of work experience
  • Have 6,000 hours of work experience (a bachelor’s can substitute for 2,000 hours of experience and a master’s can substitute for
  • 4,000)
  • Complete 300 hours of supervision in four different domains
  • Complete 300 hours of education and training (six hours must be in ethics and four in HIV/AIDS)
  • Send three colleague evaluations
  • Complete supervisor evaluation
  • Pass IC&RC written exam
  • Pay $350 exam fee, $95 Counselor Certification Kit, and $250 application fee
  • Submit a completed application

AADC certification candidates must:

  • Have 2,000 hours of AADC related supervised work experience
  • Have a master’s degree in a related field and 180 hours of education specific to AADC (six hours must be in ethics)
  • Pass the IC&RC AADC exam
  • Pay $350 exam fee, $95 Counselor Certification Kit, and $250 application fee
  • Submit a completed application

The AAACCB certifies both Alcohol and Drug Counselors (ADC) and Senior Alcohol and Drug Counselors (SADC).

Certification for ADC requires:

  • Current NAADAC membership
  • Two years of work experience in the Substance Use Disorder field
  • 60 hours of continuing education units in Substance Use Disorder field
  • Four qualifying application points through education or work experience
  • Six hours of continuing education units in ethics and HIV/AIDS in the past five years
  • A completed application
  • Three competency evaluation forms from supervisors or references
  • Passing score on the NCAC Level I exam
  • A $150 fee for the oral exam and $160 for the written one

For SADC certification requirements, contact the AAAC board.

The AADAA requires annual membership renewals.

In addition to an application and fee, certificate holders must submit 20 hours of continuing education units.

The AAACCB requires its certification-holders to renew every two years.

Renewals must include 50 hours of continuing education, a $100 recertification fee, and current NAADAC membership.

What Do Substance Abuse Counselors (Drug & Alcohol) Do?

Substance abuse counselors are employed at government agencies, clinics, hospitals, outpatient treatment centers, nonprofits, and residential treatment programs. Most substance abuse counselors are trained to provide services based on 12 core functions. 

Duties can vary based on place of employment, level of license or certification, or job description, but they typically include:

  • Providing patient screening
  • Performing a thorough client intake 
  • Giving clients program orientation
  • Assessing patients therapeutic needs through one-on-one counseling sessions
  • Writing treatment plans to help clients meet their therapeutic goals
  • Counseling clients in individual and group settings
  • Providing regular case management to ensure clients access all the services they need to be successful
  • Offering crisis intervention when necessary 
  • Educating clients and family members on substance abuse disorders
  • Referring clients to other providers when necessary
  • Maintaining client records
  • Consulting with other substance abuse counselors or health professionals to provide the best care possible

How Much Do Substance Abuse Counselors (Drug & Alcohol) Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), there are 310,880 addiction counselors employed in the US, including those in mental health counseling and behavioral disorders. The average pay per year is $53,490. Salaries can vary based on where the addiction counselor works, job descriptions, and education. National pay percentiles were:

  • 10th percentile: $30,870
  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile (median): $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol Professional Associations & Resources

Top resources for substance abuse counselors include:

  • Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC)
  • International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC)
  • American Addiction Centers
  • American Counseling Association (ACA)
  • Center on Addiction
  • International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors (IAAOC)
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.