Substance Abuse Counselors

Substance abuse can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life and cause long-term health consequences. However, coming to terms with addictive behavior and getting help can be life changing not only for the person suffering from addiction, but also friends and family. Read on to learn about substance abuse counselors, how they treat patients, where they work, and more.

What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Substance abuse counselors, also called addictions counselors, are professionals who advise individuals and groups that suffer from alcohol, tobacco and drug addiction in order to help them recover from these addictive behaviors.[1,2,3]

What Credentials do Substance Abuse Counselors Have?


Educational requirements for substance abuse counselors range from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree. Workers with more education are able to provide more services to their clients, such as private one-on-one counseling sessions, and they require less supervision than those with less education. Those interested should research their state’s educational requirements.[3,4]


Substance abuse counselors must be licensed to work in private practice. Licensure requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes. Contact information for state regulating boards is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors.[3,4]

The licensure or certification criteria for substance abuse counselors working outside of private practice varies by state. Many states require applicants to pass an exam, but not all states require a specific degree.[4]

Who do Substance Abuse Counselors Treat?

Substance abuse counselors advise individuals and groups that suffer from alcohol, tobacco and drug addiction. Some counselors work with specific populations, such as people with disabilities, teenagers or veterans, while others work with those ordered by a judge to receive addiction treatment. Certain substance abuse counselors specialize in crisis intervention and work with someone who is suicidal or endangering the lives of others.[1,5]

How do Substance Abuse Counselors Treat Patients?

Substance abuse counselors work with clients individually and in group sessions. 12-step program principles, such as those used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), are often incorporated as a way of guiding the addiction treatment. In general, substance abuse counselors perform the following:[3,5]

  • Assess and evaluate clients’ mental and physical health, addiction or problem behavior, and readiness to treatment
  • Interview clients and help develop treatment goals and plans
  • Review records and recommend treatment options with clients and their families
  • Help clients develop skills and behaviors necessary to recover from their addiction or modify their behavior
  • Work with clients to identify behaviors or situations that interfere with their recovery
  • Teach families about addiction or behavior disorders and help them develop strategies to cope with those problems
  • Develop aftercare programs and follow-up procedures
  • Refer clients to other resources and services, such as job placement services and support groups
  • Conduct outreach programs to help people identify the signs of addiction and other destructive behavior, as well as steps to take to avoid such behavior

Where do Substance Abuse Counselors Work?

Substance abuse counselors are employed in a variety of settings including private practice, hospitals, detox centers, correctional institutions, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and nursing and residential care facilities.[1,6]

Most substance abuse counselors work full time in a stressful environment and have to deal with large workloads. Evenings, nights, or weekend work may be required in certain settings, such as inpatient facilities.[6]


  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. Summary. Retrieved January 29, 2014, from
  2. American Counseling Association. Substance Abuse & Addictions. Retrieved January 25, 2014, from
  3. Degree Directory. What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do? Retrieved January 29, 2014, from
  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. How to Become a Substance Abuse or Behavioral Disorder Counselor Retrieved January 23, 2014, from
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. What Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors Do. Retrieved January 29, 2014, from
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. Work Environment. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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