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Addiction to drugs or alcohol affects millions of people in the U.S. In fact, a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) survey among adults in the U.S. shows that roughly 10 percent have had a drug use disorder at some point during their lives. Around 75 percent of these adults reported that they did not receive any treatment. However, more and more people are seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, making the work that a drug and alcohol counselor does highly important. These counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors, provide valuable assistance to those who suffer from addiction.

What Does a Drug and Alcohol Counselor Do?

Drug and alcohol counselors offer professional treatment for people who have been dealing with substance use disorders, such as alcohol addiction or opioid addiction. These counselors have a number of responsibilities as part of their job. Duties often include:

  • Perform evaluations of a client or patient’s addiction, as well as their physical and mental health and well-being
  • Create a plan with the type of program, such as inpatient care or outpatient treatment, that works best for a client based on how severe their condition is and other factors
  • Help each client build skills for recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, such as recognizing and working on thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to addiction
  • Help clients recognize triggers that might raise their risk of relapse, such as being around people who drink or use drugs, and teach them how to avoid these
  • Educate clients’ families about substance abuse and work with them on how to help their loved ones recover
  • Provide clients with information on other kinds of services they might need in addition to recovery services, such as employment assistance

Drug and alcohol counselors sometimes work with clients on an individual basis, although some work with clients in group settings. Some of these substance abuse counselors specialize in helping specific populations, such as women who struggle with addiction or youths who have a substance use disorder. While coming up with treatment plans, drug and alcohol counselors often work with other professionals, such as psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers. This allows them to create a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses clients’ needs for recovery.

Qualities of a Drug and Alcohol Counselor

Education is a crucial component of becoming a successful drug and alcohol counselor. However, those who turn this into a rewarding career should also have certain qualities. Addiction counseling can be challenging, especially when working with those who are struggling with a severe or long-term addiction. Substance abuse counselors should have compassion, patience, and exceptional listening skills in order to provide effective help to clients. These counselors should also have strong interpersonal skills that allow them to work with a wide range of personalities and temperaments.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse counselors earn a median pay of $46,240 a year or $22.23 an hour. The salary range for these counselors varies by state and by the kind of place they work at. For example, the median salary for drug and alcohol counselors working in residential care facilities is $39,690, while the median salary for those working in outpatient care centers is $44,750. Addiction counselors working in government positions earn a median salary of $52,720, while those working in hospital settings earn a median salary of $49,100.

The projected job outlook for this career from 2019 through 2029 is 25 percent, which is significantly faster than the average outlook of 4 percent overall for all occupations. This job outlook indicates that those who plan on working as a drug and alcohol counselor can expect to find plenty of job opportunities in the coming years. In 2019, there were 319,400 of these jobs. By 2029, the total number is expected to be 398,400. This job growth is projected based on more and more people being willing to seek professional help for addiction. Other reasons for this job outlook include states turning to addiction treatment services instead of prison time for convicted drug offenders and the ongoing need for professional substance abuse counseling services to help military veterans.

A higher percentage of substance abuse counselors work in outpatient care settings compared to residential care settings. According to BLS, 19 percent of these counselors work in outpatient substance abuse centers, while 10 percent work in residential substance abuse facilities. Others work in different settings, such as hospitals or individual and family services. Around 10 percent work in hospitals, 10 percent work in individual and family services, and 8 percent work in government settings.

Education Requirements

Becoming a drug and alcohol counselor generally requires people to have a higher education degree, although some jobs might only require a high school diploma. Some positions require an associate degree, but most require a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in areas such as psychology or clinical social work.

Associate Degree

An associate degree in counseling or psychology might provide some job opportunities for those interested in working as an addiction counselor. These 2-year programs cover topics needed for this type of work, such as counseling theory, psychology, and case management.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree typically provides more job opportunities, as well as higher pay, compared to an associate degree. These 4-year programs offer more in-depth education on drug and alcohol counseling, such as diagnosing chemical dependencies, individual and group counseling principles, addiction psychology, and psychological assessments.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree provides the highest-paying job opportunities in this type of work. Those who have a master’s degree can also expect to work with less supervision overall. Having this kind of degree also opens up more job opportunities, such as working with clients one on one rather than in group settings. Master’s degree programs cover topics in greater depth for this type of work with courses such as drug and alcohol abuse treatment methods, group counseling techniques, and contemporary substance abuse topics.

Certification and Licensure Requirements

Having a degree is usually a requirement for working as a drug and alcohol counselor, but there are other kinds of requirements, as well. In order to work as this type of counselor, each state requires licensing and certification. The specific requirements for certification and licensure vary by state, so those who are interested in this type of work should refer to their own state’s requirements.

Overall, most states have requirements for state board licensing exams, such as the National Counseling Exam. Passing background checks and felony checks are also required for those working as substance abuse counselors. These counselors are also usually required to do a set amount of counseling hours under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, such as 2,000 to 4,000 hours. Drug and alcohol counselors can also expect to pass oral exams and written exams as part of the requirements needed for this kind of work. Other requirements include continuing education.

In some cases, addiction counselors might choose to get certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This general type of certification, known as the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor, might be required by some employers. Specialized forms of certification are available from NBCC as well for those who want to work with certain types of addiction or with certain populations.

A substance abuse counselor can also look into becoming certified by NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. This organization offers several types of certifications, such as Nicotine Dependence Specialist, National Peer Recovery Support Specialist, and National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor. These certifications are helpful for those who want to focus on helping specific populations or treating specific kinds of addiction.

If you’re thinking of advancing your career as a drug and alcohol counselor, please contact Post University. We offer an online drug and alcohol counseling certificate as part of our Master of Science in Counseling and Human Services degree program.


Having a degree is usually a requirement for working as a drug and alcohol counselor, but there are other kinds of requirements as well. In order to work as this type of counselor, each state requires licensing and certification. The specific requirements for certification and licensure vary by state, so those who are interested in this type of work should refer to their own state’s requirements. Students are encouraged to understand, evaluate, and consult the appropriate agency within the state in which he or she wishes to practice to determine specific requirements. Post University makes no representations or guarantees that completion of Post University coursework or programs will permit an individual to obtain state licensure, authorization, endorsement, or other state credentials. 

Please note jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries expected from any Post University program. To learn more about Post University’s program and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions representative.