Online Certificates in Addiction & Substance Abuse Counseling

Addiction and substance abuse counseling is undoubtedly a rapidly growing sector within the realm of social work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022), the growth rate for the category “substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors” for 2021 to 2031 is expected to be 22 percent nationally, a staggering figure considering the 5 percent growth expected among all occupations nationally during this time period.

Addiction and substance abuse counselors are vital in helping individuals struggling with drug or alcohol dependence. In the United States, opioid overdoses claim thousands of lives yearly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2022) estimated that 107,622 individuals died from a drug overdose in the year 2021—80,816 of which were attributed to opioids such as heroin or fentanyl. 

Counselors are an important component of the system of care that is in place to help people dealing with issues arising from addiction or withdrawal. They work in various clinical, outpatient, or private settings to help mitigate the negative effects of addiction or help people on the road to recovery and sobriety. Hospitals, municipalities, non-governmental organizations, prisons, and jails may employ addiction and substance abuse counselors. Because of the widespread nature of drug and alcohol abuse, these professionals can be found in myriad roles across both the private and public sectors.

Online certificate programs for addiction and substance abuse counseling are an effective way for graduates of related degrees to earn the necessary credentials to work in this field. Because addiction and substance abuse counseling is a certified profession in every state of the US, earning a certificate from an accredited program is a necessary step to entering this field. 

This guide provides individuals interested in this important and growing field with some insights into these programs, and what advantages they may offer their participants.

Typical Admissions Requirements for Online Certificate Programs in Addiction & Substance Abuse Counseling

Because online programs for substance and abuse counselors have quite a bit of variation in both their curriculum and orientation, there are very few single requirements for admission that all online certificate programs share across the board. 

However, because all of them are designed as post-graduate programs, they generally require that applicants already hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field. For example, the “online addiction and substance use related disorders graduate certificate” offered through Arizona State University requires that applicants complete a bachelor’s degree in “any health, behavioral health or counseling related field” with a grade no lower than a 3.0 before applying. 

Here are a few other prerequisites that are typically required for applicants to online certification programs for drug and substance use counselors:

  • An applicant’s comprehensive CV, including relevant previous work experiences, internships, or participation in field-related extracurricular activities, organizations, or clubs
  • Official transcripts from the degree-awarding institution that are relevant to the application
  • A letter of recommendation from a counseling professional, a trusted professor or another instructor
  • Payment of the necessary application fee
  • Cover letter or statement of intent

Many universities and accrediting institutions will have requirements beyond those outlined above. In some cases, this may be related to in-state residency or proficiency in the English language. They will vary from one school to the next but should be carefully reviewed before individuals choose their program.

Courses in Online Certificate Programs in Addiction & Substance Abuse Counseling

Depending on the program, students will have quite a bit of choice in selecting their elective courses over the course of their certification training. Because of the broad needs of addicted people and the wide-ranging implications of drug and alcohol use for society, these courses can cover many subjects. 

  • Addiction and substance abuse: assessment and diagnosis
  • Comorbidity in substance use-related problems
  • Group therapy for substance use-related problems
  • Ethics
  • Evidence-based interventions for substance use-related problems
  • Multicultural issues related to substance use related problems
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Theory and techniques for substance abuse counseling
  • Addiction in the family
  • Addiction and society

Certification and Licensure Requirements for Addiction & Substance Abuse Counselors

In all US states and territories, addiction counseling is a profession that requires certification or licensure to practice it legally. Several organizations provide certifications in the United States which are broadly accepted across jurisdictions. 

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) is the certification body that was founded by the NAADAC, or Association for Addiction Professionals, one of the largest professional organizations for addiction counselors. The NAADAC offers credentials in a tired system, with a higher number indicating a higher level: 

  • National certified addiction counselor, level I (NCAC I)
  • National certified addiction counselor, level II (NCAC II)
  • Master addiction counselor (MAC)

NAADAC also offers specialization credentials for counselors seeking to add expertise in a specific area, such as adolescent counseling or nicotine addiction. 

The National Board of Certified Counselors is another professional organization that offers several widely accepted certifications through its program. Currently, these titles include certified clinical mental health counselor (CCMHC), national certified school counselor (NCSC), and master addictions counselor (MAC)—the highest certification currently on offer through this body. 

The third organization offering certification programs for addiction counselors in the U.S. is the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium, or IC&RC, which currently offers the following certifications: ​​

  • Alcohol and drug counselor (ADC)
  • Advanced alcohol and drug counselor (AADC)
  • Clinical supervisor (CS)
  • Prevention specialist (PS)
  • Certified criminal justice addictions professional (CCJP)
  • Peer recovery (PR)

Program Accreditation for Online Certificate Programs in Addiction & Substance Abuse Counseling

Because of the strict requirements for licensure in the United States, prospective addiction counselors shouldn’t waste their time with programs that are not fully accredited. Individual states set their own requirements for program accreditations, and they may vary from one state to another. 

However, in addition to its credentialing programs, the Association for Addiction Professionals also offers a public list of “approved education providers,” which serves as an informal accreditation of addiction counseling programs on a national level. Because of the importance of certification and accreditation, prospective students looking to enter an online program should always ensure that their chosen program is accredited in the state where they plan to work. The programs themselves may offer additional resources on accreditation.

Purdue University

Purdue Global’s graduate certificate in addictions is offered through the prestigious university’s online program, and can be completed over the course of a single year. Purdue offers multiple start dates for its graduate certificate program, allowing students greater flexibility in choosing their schedules. Purdue’s semesters are called “terms” and last ten weeks each. 

  • Location: West Lafayette, Indiana
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $420 per credit 

University of Wisconsin-Madison 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers its substance use disorders counselor program through its successful and well-established correspondence program, which has now largely moved online. Graduates of UW’s program will graduate with the required educational hours to become both a substance abuse counselor and a clinical substance abuse counselor in the state of Wisconsin. 

  • Location: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $2,225 total

Old Dominion University

Under the name “Old Dominion Global,” Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia offers an addiction prevention and treatment certificate aimed at addiction specialists hoping to attain licensure in the state of Virginia. Old Dominion’s program can be completed in the space of 18 credit hours. Because Old Dominion’s certificate program requires the completion of a practical semester in person, it may not be appropriate for prospective students looking for a 100 percent online experience. 

  • Location: Norfolk, Virginia
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: residents: $374 per credit, non-residents: $407 per credit 

University of Florida

The University of Florida offers its addiction and recovery certificate program through its medical school, which hosts one of the largest addiction research efforts in the country. 

The program’s coursework leans on classic counseling methods and modern neuro- and behavioral science. UF’s online certificate program graduates are prepared for licensure as certified addiction professionals working in the state of Florida. 

  • Location: Gainesville, Florida
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $590 per credit 

Arizona State University

Few universities have expanded as broadly into the online learning space as Arizona State University, a public university in Arizona with multiple large campuses across the state. 

ASU’s substance abuse counseling certificate program requires prospective students to hold a minimum of a 3.0 GPA and a completed bachelor’s degree from a related health or behavioral field. Courses range from teaching specific expertise in counseling methods to theoretical explorations in psychology, behavior, and ethics. 

  • Location: Tempe, Arizona
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $658 per credit

Addiction Counselor in a Correctional Facility

Counseling is an important aspect of the justice system which is often overlooked. Many jail and prison populations are dealing with addiction, and counselors work with incarcerated people in closed facilities across the country. 

Because of the sensitive and challenging nature of the work that is done in some of these facilities, addiction counselors working in these settings often have additional qualifications or specializations for working with incarcerated populations

Addiction Counselor in an Inpatient Facility

Inpatient facilities are considered fairly typical workplaces for certified addictions and substance abuse counselors. Rehab, detox, and recovery programs are often administered in inpatient settings where patients may spend weeks or even months. 

Reputable facilities will often employ multiple addiction counselors who may also have specialized training in treating specific addictions. Some clinics may specialize in treating opioid addiction and employ counselors with the fitting credentials, while other facilities focus exclusively on patients dealing with alcoholism. At inpatient facilities, addiction counselors may administer individual or group counseling, and work with clients in various capacities. 

Outpatient Addiction Counselor

Outpatient facilities comprise a broad array of different work settings for addiction and substance abuse counselors. Local, state, and federal government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services, and the Veterans Administration all have a steady demand for qualified addiction counseling professionals. 

Unlike inpatient programs, counselors working in this capacity may see clients on a fixed schedule or as the need arises and may even personally visit them in their homes. Private counseling services also count among the major employers of addiction counselors in outpatient settings and are increasingly offering counseling services via telehealth methods. In this way, some outpatient addiction counselors now work exclusively remotely, or through a hybrid model.

Addiction Counseling in Private Practice

Like other healthcare and social service providers, addiction counselors can go into private practice. These practitioners may work as contractors on an as-needed basis or run their own physical practices in which they see clients in person. Addiction counselors in private practice may also offer their services via telehealth or travel to or along with their clients dealing with substance abuse issues. 

Addiction & Substance Abuse Counseling in Hospitals

Many large hospitals and hospital systems employ substance abuse counselors to allow them to help incoming patients who are dealing with problems arising from addiction. As certain dependencies, such as alcohol and opioid addiction, can significantly increase certain medical risks, these specialists play an important role in hospital settings. 

Additionally, substance abuse counselors working in this area are often on the frontline of helping individuals dealing with the intense pain and discomfort of withdrawal.

Johannes Stitz

Johannes Stitz


Johannes Stitz is a freelance writer and researcher based in the Southwest. He’s written about various topics in engineering careers. Before turning to freelance writing, he spent nearly a decade in the arts as a booker and event manager.