Substance abuse and addiction counselors work with clients one-on-one or in groups, providing critical support to help people recover from drug and alcohol addictions as well as chemical dependencies. New research on addiction and treatment has led judicial systems to rely more on counseling services, and people continue to seek treatment on their own. As a result, employment rates for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are projected to grow by 25% through 2029, making this an ideal time to pursue what many people feel is a fulfilling career in the counseling field.
Overview of Online Substance Abuse Counseling Bachelor's Degrees
Students of substance abuse counseling study the symptoms and causes of chemical dependency and are trained to provide clinical support for those suffering from addiction. The top online colleges for bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling provide the highest return on investment for students, meaning that the career outcomes of graduates will likely outweigh the initial program cost.
What Students Will Learn in an Online Program
Students can expect to take general education classes in English and the humanities, science, math, and the social sciences in addition to counseling-specific core courses. In addition to receiving a solid foundation in psychology, counseling theory, and addiction patterns, students will learn to provide both individual and group counseling.
In some cases, online schools offer students the chance to practice this in-person counseling through supervised practicums. During a practicum, students work in the same capacity as a fully employed counselor or assistant counselor within a mental health facility. This can be a great way for students to gain work experience prior to graduation. Another avenue of training for most students will be to work as a volunteer at a hospital or a rehabilitation clinic. Students can contact local addiction counseling groups and inquire about their volunteer opportunities.
The following courses are commonly required in substance abuse counseling degree and certificate programs:
- Developmental Psychology: An introduction to developmental psychology teaches students about cognitive development, language and motor skill acquisition, moral reasoning and empathy, and social development throughout the life cycle. Students will gain an understanding of diagnostic and assessment tools, and how to utilize them in the counseling setting.
- Families and Addiction: Because an individual's chemical dependency or other addictive behavior often has a profound impact on family life, many programs devote a course to the counseling and treatment of whole families. Coursework typically explores the prevention of additional substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior, relational patterns typical of substance-dependent families, and other specific issues related to women and children.
- Group Counseling: Sometimes involving experiential learning, this course explores the theories and techniques of providing counseling in group settings. Students learn about types of groups, group interaction and development, the benefits of different counseling styles, and effective group facilitation. Coursework also addresses ethical concerns, such as client confidentiality.
- Individual Counseling: Designed to develop and enhance students' competencies as professional substance abuse counselors, this course trains students to perform all aspects of counseling individuals. Students learn the stages of the counseling process, from client screening, intake, and treatment planning, through client education and case management reporting. Coursework often emphasizes the skills and knowledge needed to pass certification exams, including ethical and legal issues related to counseling practice.
- Introduction to Substance Abuse and Addiction: This course provides students with an overview of the causes and consequences of addictive behavior. Course materials will cover drug and alcohol abuse, and may address eating disorders, pathological gambling, and compulsive sexual behaviors. Students will be introduced to various perspectives on addiction treatment, including views from psychology, sociology, criminology, and medical science.
- Professional Ethics and Legal Responsibility: While some programs interject a discussion of ethical and legal issues into many courses, other programs consolidate this important topic into a standalone course. Students will learn various theories of ethical reasoning, and understand how they are applied in the counseling setting. Course materials also cover the legal responsibilities associated with the counseling profession.
- Psychopharmacology: In the context of a substance abuse counseling program, psychopharmacology will cover two major topics. First, coursework will examine major drug classifications and the effect of both legal and illegal drug types on the central nervous system. Second, the course will explore the possible use of prescription drugs in the treatment of substance abuse, especially for patients who also suffer from mental illness.
Prospective online substance abuse counseling students should research the accreditation of the schools they're considering before enrolling. Accrediting agencies carefully assess a school's ability to provide a high-quality education by reviewing its curricula, faculty members, student resources, and student outcomes. Choosing an accredited school can help you feel confident that you are investing in a worthwhile education program that will be recognized by:
- Future employers
- Licensing boards
- Other accredited schools
- Student financial aid agencies
For information about the accreditation status of individual schools, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are helpful resources. We've also compiled a guide to accreditation, including the different types of accrediting agencies and why accreditation is so important for students.
Frequently Asked Questions About Careers
What Do Substance Abuse Counselors Do?
During the course of treatment, substance abuse counselors may evaluate a patient's condition, identify causes and triggers of the abuse, develop a treatment plan or course of action, and help the patient develop positive behaviors and routines that avoid the abused substance. They may also coordinate social services for the patient and meet with the patient's family and friends to ensure that they are assisting with the recovery process. In the course of carrying out these job responsibilities, substance abuse counselors meet and talk with patients frequently, either in an individual or group setting.
Some substance abuse counselors work with individuals who have been sentenced by a court to complete a rehabilitation program; they may need to incorporate the court's ruling into the length or nature of the treatment. As part of the treatment plan, counselors help clients develop coping mechanisms to deal with troubling situations that could cause a relapse in their behavior. Some counselors diagnose and treat patients, while others focus on helping patients find useful community resources.
What Degree Do You Need To Be a Substance Abuse Counselor?
In general, a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling or a similar program that provides training in counseling (such as psychology) is required for entry-level positions. In some states, a bachelor's degree qualifies you to become a substance abuse counselor in a number of different settings, such as an outpatient mental health clinic, substance abuse clinic, or juvenile detention center.
If you want to enter into private practice where you can provide additional services to your clients, most states require you to earn a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or clinical social work from a regionally accredited school. In addition to earning a degree, you will need to complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience and pass a certification exam in order to practice.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?
Online bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling typically require the completion of 120 credits of general education and major-specific courses. Students can accomplish this in four years of full-time study.
Online master's programs in counseling can take two to three years to complete the required number of credit hours, which varies by school. Many students also need at least a year to accumulate the 2,000+ hours of supervised clinical experience required to become certified for private practice.
What Can I Do With a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling or Addiction Studies?
With a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling or addiction studies, you are eligible for a number of counseling jobs in:
- community-run health clinics,
- private health facilities,
- and agencies and offices related to the legal system.
In most cases, you will work under the supervision of a licensed counselor, and you may have to work some evenings and weekends. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for substance abuse counselors is $47,660, and demand for professionals in this field is expected to grow by 25% over the next decade, creating 79,000 new jobs.
Once you've earned a substance abuse counseling bachelor's degree, you have several other career paths open to you. For example, you could become a social and community service worker, earning a median annual salary of $69,600. You might also consider becoming a correctional treatment specialist, with a median annual salary of $55,690. By earning a master's degree in counseling or therapy, you can pursue quite a few additional career options, such as marriage and family therapist, rehabilitation counselor, and school and career counselor.
Can a Person Who Was Formerly Incarcerated Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?
While having a criminal record can make it more difficult to become licensed, it still is possible for many. Those who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in the past are often drawn to a career as a substance abuse counselor, and are uniquely positioned to support others in recovery.
Laws vary from state to state, but most licensure boards take into account the type and seriousness of the crime, how long ago it was committed, and the length of rehabilitation time when evaluating applicants.
Certification Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors
Certification requirements vary by state, employing institution, and position. A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a substance abuse counselor in many states, but others require a master's. Even so, it is possible in some states to become a substance abuse counselor without a postsecondary degree.
The types of treatment and services you can offer as a substance abuse counselor will depend on the state in which you live.
- In some states, counselors with only a high school diploma or certificate can provide certain services to clients.
- In other states, a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling prepares graduates to earn a state substance abuse license. Some employers may require or prefer particular professional certifications, like those offered through The Association for Addiction Professionals.
- In many states, to diagnose and treat people with behavioral disorders, you will need to earn a master's degree or higher in counseling and complete 2,000-4,000 hours of fieldwork under the supervision of an experienced counselor.
One of the most common certifications available in this field is the National Certified Counselor (NCC), administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. Check with your state to determine the exact educational and certification requirements you need to practice in your state.
How Do You Become a Certified Addiction Professional?
The Certified Addiction Professional (CAP) credential is required to practice as a substance abuse counselor in the state of Florida. Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree or higher in substance abuse counseling or a similar field. Florida also allows counseling professionals to obtain an alternate type of certification, known as the Certified Addiction Counselor. The requirements are much lower, as only a high school diploma and far fewer hours of clinical training and experience are needed. CAC certification is also accepted in many other states across the U.S., and is sometimes known as Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) certification. Your state's department of health or a similar website can provide you with information on certification requirements for your state.
What is CADC Certification?
In the state of California, the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals administers the certification training and testing for the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) certification. CADC certification is available in three levels: CADC-I, CADC-II, and CADC-III. Level I and Level II certification are available to individuals who have a high school diploma or associate degree and meet other requirements for education, training, and experience. Level III criteria includes a bachelor's degree in counseling. CADC certification is just one of several different types of certification accepted by employers across the state. If you are a California resident, check with the state board of health for full details on substance abuse counseling certification.