Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling Careers

The Basics

Imagine living with an addiction. The constant cravings to drink or do drugs, the tension that those behaviors cause with family, friends, and other loved ones, and the negative impact it has on one’s health and well-being is enough to completely destroy one’s life. Relationships end, jobs are lost, and many times drugs and alcohol lead to trouble with the law.

Even if someone that abuses these substances wants to quit and change their life for the better, it is often so difficult to overcome that trying to kick their habit on their own just leads to failure and relapse. This constant failure at getting cleaned up can lead to a worsening of the situation with the development of anger and depression. Thus, the vicious cycle persists, and a person’s life continues to be in shambles because of their addiction to dangerous substances.

What Does an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor Do?

Alcohol and drug abuse counselors help prevent or treat various types of substance addictions. They conduct counseling for clients one on one or in a group setting. Main job duties typically include assessment of the client and their behaviors to determine whether they are addicted and, if so, what they are addicted to. To do this, counselors use certain standards, such as certain types of questioning and/or surveys, to identify the extent to which someone uses a certain substance.

Counselors also consider their clients’ readiness for change, what stage are they at in terms of actually recognizing that there is a problem, how much do they want to change, and how willing and motivated are they to actually choose and implement different behaviors. Also, they decide on and implement the appropriate treatment for the client. Treatment would include therapy that has been shown effective for the particular addiction they have. It would also often incorporate helping the client to deal with his or her underlying mental health issues such as grief or trauma that may have been related to the addiction. Treatment often includes various levels of the twelve-step programs.

What Therapies Do Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor Use?

Fortunately, there are many therapies available to alcohol and drug abuse counselors that have proven to be effective in treating substance abuse-related issues.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common treatment for individuals that struggle with alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and other highly addictive drugs like cocaine. In CBT, counselors help clients identify the behaviors that lead to or facilitate the use of drugs or alcohol. Once those behaviors are identified, counselors teach clients coping skills that make it less likely that the person will utilize drugs. CBT is also useful for addressing other issues that often occur at the same time as drug abuse, such as depression.

Contingency Management

Another popular treatment that alcohol and drug abuse counselors use is contingency management. Essentially, contingency management uses rewards that reinforce positive, healthy behavior and choices. For example, a client with an alcohol addiction might receive a reward for every drug test they successfully pass. Often these rewards take the form of vouchers for goods like food or movie passes that are consistent with living a drug-free lifestyle.

Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA)

The community reinforcement approach (CRA) is widely used as well. In this model, alcohol and drug abuse counselors use reinforcers from various aspects of life to encourage clients to live cleanly. For example, a client in therapy might learn new social skills that allow them to meet with and interact with new people without feeling the need to drink or do drugs to do so. Another example might be using time with one’s family as an incentive to make drug-free choices and lead a clean life.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)

Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) is yet another effective therapy used by alcohol and drug abuse counselors. Used most often with people that have a cocaine, nicotine, or alcohol addiction, MET takes a rapid approach to facilitating internal change. Rather than proceeding slowly through a program of specific steps, MET focuses on the counselor giving specific feedback to the client, who internalizes that feedback and makes a detailed plan for change. The counselor then uses motivational interviewing techniques to strengthen the client’s resolve to stick with healthier choices.

What are the Education Requirements to Become an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor?

In order to become alcohol and drug abuse counselor, you need to obtain a master’s degree, which can take approximately two years after your bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree can usually be completed in four years of full-time coursework. You can obtain your bachelor’s and master’s degrees either in counseling or social work in order to work in a job that would consist of the job duties as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor.

Many master’s degree programs may accept students even from other disciplines (rather than psychology or social work), as well. In your master’s program, you should take courses related to addictions, such as addictions counseling, family dynamics, and substance abuse.

Where Does an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor Work?

Alcohol and drug abuse counselors typically work in the following settings:

  • Substance abuse centers
  • General medial and surgical hospitals
  • Outpatient mental health centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Residential care facilities
  • Social service facilities
  • Family services
  • Correctional facilities
  • Prison and juvenile detention centers
  • Local government
  • Private practice

What Skills are Needed to Become an Drug Abuse Counselor?

To be an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, you must be compassionate and patient with your clients. Your clients will quite possibly experience relapse. They might use substances even though they are trying and really want to change.

As an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, you also need to be comfortable with emotions and willing to allow the expression of emotion. In doing alcohol and drug abuse counseling, your clients are likely to have lots of unprocessed emotions that might come up if they decided to stop using substances.

You should also be empathic, nonjudgmental, and accepting of the people you work with as well as their families. You truly have to be nonjudgmental and compassionate.

What is the Salary for an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor?

The average annual salary of an alcohol and drug abuse counselor in 2014 was $41,870 (BLS). This would vary, though, depending on where you work. For instance, you might get paid more on average if you work at a hospital rather than a local substance abuse clinic. The average salary for individuals working in ‘Educational Support Services ‘ was $56,150 (BLS).

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