How to Become an Addiction Therapist

What Does an Addiction Therapist Do?

Addiction therapists play an important role in helping people overcome addictions, whether they have addictions to drugs, food, gambling, sex, or any other attractive menace.

The job of the addiction therapist is first to listen to the patient’s own assessment of his or her addiction problems. Then the therapist, in cooperation with the patient and the rest of the health care team, can begin to form a plan to control the addiction. Most patients need numerous visits to their therapists, and a feeling of mutual trust and honesty must be maintained. Patients can be frightened, angry, confused, or depressed, and therapists must deal with the spectrum of emotions in a calm and professional manner. Showing confidence at all times will let the patient know that the team is competent to provide helpful service.

Addictive substances fundamentally alter the way in which the brain functions, and it is these changes that lead to the compulsion of addiction. Addiction therapists work with an acute understanding of the affects of these substances on the brain and treat patients accordingly, helping to achieve positive, addiction-free outcomes.

Addiction therapy is one aspect of recovery, but an important one. Therapists in this area will help patients better understand some of the emotional addictions that accompany substance abuse and how to cope with and control them. They will also put treatment plans in place and aid the patient in adhering to it.

Initially, all patients will be given an individual screening by the therapist so they can fully understand each patient’s specific issues. Ongoing therapy sessions may be on a one-to-one or group basis, interventions such as twelve-step programs and discussion sessions are designed to help overcome these emotional aspects of substance abuse.

Addiction therapists will often be involved in establishing and mediating group therapy sessions. The role of this type of therapy is to reduce the isolation and shame often felt by substance abusers and to encourage patients to build strong emotional bonds with other sufferers to increase the support networks they have within their daily lives. It also includes patients in a culture of recovery – they can see other people recovering and it seems both achievable and desirable.

Addiction therapy can be a long, ongoing process. Therapists in this area often work with other professionals and will refer patients on to other specialties if it is felt to be necessary. The specific challenges faced by individuals may be different at different stages of recovery but the underlying functioning of the ‘addicted brain’ remains and, for that, an addiction therapist is key.

Where Does an Addiction Therapist Work?

Addiction therapists work in many environments including hospitals, residential treatment centers, prisons, probation offices, and juvenile detention centers. Patients can be a challenge as they struggle, many times unsuccessfully, with their addictions. Addiction therapists must be ready to work with return patients while creating a safe, non-threatening environment for their patients.

What are the Requirements to Become an Addiction Therapist?


Requirements vary a great deal from state to state, one facility to the next, and according to levels of responsibility. Some addiction therapists have a high school diploma and on the job training. Some have beaten their own personal addictions and use their experience to help others going through the same difficulties. Residential programs are good for on the job training. Many states require certification, which usually requires a certain number of hours seeing patients in a supervised program. See your state government’s Department of Health for requirements.

For most formal jobs bachelor’s degree in a behavioral health field, sociology, psychology, or social work is required. However, some employers may prefer candidates with a master’s degree. Master’s degree is generally required to become a licensed therapist/counselor.

Bachelor’s degree programs typically take four years to complete. Many programs offer a four year degree in addiction counseling. Others offer programs in psychology with minors or electives in addiction counseling. Colleges typically require 60 semester hours in general education, including English, history, math, civics, science, humanities, and electives. An additional 60 semester units in the major subjects teach students pharmacology, group, family, and individual counseling, psychological evaluation, sociology of addiction, diagnosis of chemical dependency, treatment plans, preventing recidivism, research, and statistics. Clinical internships send students to clinical settings where they experience working with actual clients.

Related: Becoming an Addiction Counselor

Master’s degree programs are also available. Students are required to complete a bachelor’s degree before entering, and can apply during their senior years of undergraduate studies. Requirements range from 44 to 62 semester hours for the degree. Many of the classes are on the same subjects studied in undergraduate school, but at a more advanced level. Some of the list includes substance abuse rehabilitation, counseling theories, family treatment, group counseling, multicultural counseling, research, legal and ethical aspects of substance abuse and counseling, and internship.

Both bachelor’s and master’s programs prepare students for counseling addiction patients with minimal supervision. Ph.D. programs in addiction counseling are also available, primarily for students who wish to become researchers or professors, although some counselors with doctoral degrees are heads of counseling programs.


In general, becoming licensed means having permission to practice. Certification is often voluntary, to allow employers to assure employers of a counselor’s competence. Some states, however, require certification, so the definitions become blurred. In some states certification and licensure can complement each other. This means that a recognized organization in the state provides certification which the candidate can take to the state board to obtain licensure.

Before beginning a course of study, check with your state board of licensing for health care professionals. Once you know your state’s requirements you will be able to plan to fulfill them.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), which many states require for licensure.

External Resource: Understanding National Certification and State Licensure

For counselors with a master’s degree the NBCC administers the Examination for Master Addiction Counselors (MAC) certification, after obtaining; National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification, completing at least 12 graduate semester hours in addictions, and working at least 20 hours a week for 3 years under supervision. If you don’t already hold NCC, you can apply for the NCC and MAC together.

National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors grants certification to individuals who have completed an addiction counselor educational program and served the required number of hours in clinical work for a given level of expertise. The NCCAP has established three levels: National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I ), National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level ll (NCAC ll), and Master Addiction Counselor (MAC).

The International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium provides following credentials:

  • Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC)
  • Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (AADC)
  • Clinical Supervisor (CS)
  • Prevention Specialist (PS)
  • Criminal Justice Addictions Professional (CCJP)
  • Co-Occurring Disorders Professional (CCDP/D)
  • Peer Recovery (PR)

What Skills are Required for an Addiction Therapist?

  • Empathy is necessary for every kind of counselor. Counselors need to understand how patients feel.
  • Non-judgemental attitude is important to let the patient know that you are there to help rather than judge.
  • Good listening skills are important to understand what the patient is telling the counselor
  • Analytical skills help in understanding the patient and his or her behavior.
  • Planning and Coordination are important for designing and carrying out a care plan.
  • Teamwork makes for the best patient outcomes by combining the skills of counselors, physicians, psychologists, and nurses.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Addiction Therapists?

The outlook for the profession is good. More people than ever have access to health care services, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that by the year 2022 the need for addiction counselors will be 31 percent higher than it was in 2012. As of May 2014, according to the BLS, the average salary for addiction counselors is $41,870 per year. Addiction counselors employed by junior colleges earn the highest mean salary of $63,860. Naturally there is a great variation depending upon job setting, geographic area, education, and experience, but in general addiction counselors can do well by doing good.

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