What to Expect from a Career in Substance Abuse Counseling

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Substance abuse counselors play an invaluable role in individual, group, and family recovery from addictions.

Why Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

The US government cites drug and alcohol addiction as one of our nation’s largest public health concerns. Statistics related to addiction are daunting. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), drugs and alcohol accounted for 305,731 visits to hospital emergency rooms in the latter half of 2003. In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that substance abuse costs the country $484 billion a year.



Because of the continuing problem of addiction and increased awareness of treatments, the demand for substance abuse counselors is ever present, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it’s growing rapidly for several reasons. Drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs rather than jail, creating thousands of job openings. Choosing substance abuse counseling as a career will give you the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others and society as a whole.

What Do Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Counselors Do?

Substance abuse specialists work with individuals and groups, helping them define behaviors and problems related to their addictions. In addition, substance abuse counselors can work with family members who are affected by the addictions of their loved ones. Counselors also create and facilitate preventative programs aimed at curbing addiction.

It’s possible for substance abuse counselors to have a standard workweek of 40 hours, from morning to evening, but self-employed substance abuse counselors and those working for mental health and community agencies frequently work evenings to counsel clients who work during the day. Some substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in therapeutic communities where people with addictions live while undergoing treatment. Substance abuse counselors also work in organizations engaged in community improvement and social change, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and state and local government agencies.

Are There Prerequisites for the Job?

Substance abuse counselors are generally governed by a different state agency or board than other counselors. In some cases those interested in becoming a counselor only need a high school diploma and certification, while some employers will prefer an advanced degree. It is recommended that individuals interested in this career look into the specific requirements decreed by their state of residence.

What’s in Store for Substance Abuse Counselors?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is expected to grow 34% by 2016 — much faster than the average for all occupations. Prospects are excellent because many people are leaving the field or retiring. Opportunities for substance abuse counseling tend to be good because the relatively low wages and long hours make recruiting new entrants difficult. If you’re willing to take on the initial challenge, substance abuse counseling can be vital experience for any other avenue within the psychological health field that you wish to pursue.

What’s the Pay Like for Substance Abuse Counselors?

According to the BLS, the median salary for substance abuse counselors (grouped with behavioral disorder counselors) in 2006 was $34,040. Government employers generally pay the highest wages for substance abuse counselors, followed by hospitals and social service agencies. Residential care facilities often pay the lowest wages.

Sources: Drug Abuse Warning Network website, July 8, 2008; National Institute on Drug Abuse website, July 8, 2008; Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, July 8, 2008
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