Substance Abuse Counselor Career

What is Substance Abuse Counseling?

Substance abuse counseling is a comprehensive mental health field charged with helping individuals recover from drug or alcohol addiction. While much focus is on the substance abuse itself, substance abuse counseling also seeks to address related issues in social, emotional, occupational, and mental health functioning. A foundational belief of substance abuse counselors is that addiction is a disease but that it is highly treatable given the appropriate treatments, interventions, and time.

The manner in which addiction and its associated issues are treated varies widely, as substance abuse counseling maintains that no single treatment is the best approach for all clients. Furthermore, substance abuse counseling is much more than requiring detox; instead, it encompasses a variety of intervention and prevention measures, including educational programs, medical interventions, and behavioral interventions. In essence, substance abuse counseling involves a long-term, multi-modal approach that is continually adapted to meet a client’s ever-changing needs.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

As the name implies, substance abuse counselors focus on helping people overcome addiction and dependency to drugs and alcohol. The involvement of a substance abuse counselor usually begins in an intervention or intake setting. At this point, the counselor is trying to determine the severity of the issue and any extenuating circumstances that might help or hinder the process of recovery.

Substance abuse counselors are responsible for developing a specific plan of action for each client based upon his or her unique situation. Factors that go into developing a recovery plan include age, level of family or social support, level of addiction, the drug(s) to which the individual is addicted, and any legal requirements as per the adjudication of a criminal sentence. These factors are determined, in part, by interviews with the afflicted individual as well as his or her loved ones. Assessments may be administered as well, which the substance abuse counselor would score, interpret, and discuss with the client.

How a substance abuse counselor implements a recovery plan can take a number of forms:

  • Individual therapy services – Therapy helps clients identify the root causes of their behavior, especially the triggers that led to substance abuse. Clients identify positive solutions to their problems and begin to come to terms with the damage they’ve incurred on family and friends. Counselors in this setting tend to be hands-on and work side-by-side with the client in the recovery process.
  • Group therapy services – Many people with a substance abuse issue respond well to group therapy because of the shared experience of addiction they have with other group members. Substance abuse counselors in this context may work as more of a facilitator to help drive the healing process in a positive direction.
  • Treatment classes – Substance abuse counselors often teach courses for addicted individuals, from those that facilitate skill building to those that focus on improved decision-making. It may also involve the participation of loved ones so as to build up a strong network of individuals the client can trust and rely upon throughout their recovery period.

What is the Job Outlook for Substance Abuse Counselors?

Substance abuse counseling is one of the fastest growing fields in mental health work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the field to grow by 31 percent over the next half-decade. Part of this growth is due to the continued struggles that many Americans have with drug and alcohol addiction. Additionally, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many substance abuse counseling services are now covered by insurance. This has, in turn, led many people to seek treatment that could not otherwise afford to do so just a few years ago. The result has been very strong growth in substance abuse counseling jobs, especially in community mental health settings and inpatient or outpatient treatment centers.

Additionally, many jobs are becoming available in the criminal justice system as more and more courts are moving towards sentencing drug offenders to counseling in favor of incarceration. And because substance abuse counseling is such a high-stress field of work, there is a very high level of worker turnover, meaning, there are generally more jobs in the field than there are qualified workers.

How Much Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Make?

BLS salary figures for substance abuse counselors place the national average at $46,240 per year, as of May 2019. However, salary estimates are heavily dependent upon the geographic area in which one works. For example, metropolitan areas on the eastern seaboard typically have a much higher median wage. Substance abuse counselors in New York City make nearly $50,000 per year, which places them in the 75th percentile in terms of wages for this occupation. Baltimore is also at the higher end of the pay scale, with substance abuse counselors making an average of $44,000 per year. Further west, yearly wages are much less. In Chicago, the expected annual salary is $35,830 while in Los Angeles, the annual salary is less than $35,000 per year.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, education requirements to work as a substance abuse counselor are extremely varied, perhaps more so than any other mental health profession. In some states, entry-level work can be done with little more than on-the-job training after high school. Workers with this level of education and training cannot be called counselors, per se, as state regulations typically preclude anyone without a master’s degree or higher to call themselves a counselor.

Instead, substance abuse counselors typically must have a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or a closely related field. Although coursework is focused on addictions and psychopharmacology, greater emphasis has been placed on traditional training in human behavior and counseling techniques over the last few years. For some workers, obtaining a Ph.D. is advantageous, particularly if they wish to enter into private practice or work in a clinical setting. Ph.D. programs in addictions and substance abuse counseling are plentiful, and typically take five years to complete.

Upon completion of a training or educational program, substance abuse counselors may be required to be certified or licensed. These requirements vary from state to state and depend as well on the employment setting. Individuals that work in a clinical setting such as a private practice or rehabilitation facility are required by law to be licensed by the state in which they live. Various certification programs are also offered for substance abuse counselors with different specialties and varying levels of education through the NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals.

What Skills are Needed for a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Substance abuse counselors require a very specific set of skills. These include:

  • Awareness of the disease processes of addiction.
  • An excellent knowledge of causes and effects of addiction on both the individual and within the wider community. This includes awareness of local social and cultural influences.
  • Outstanding communication skills – they must be able to understand and relate to people in situations very different from their own, they have to be able to gain their trust, gather information and explain solutions in an effective way.
  • Good crisis management skills – their role may involve dealing with people in acute crisis scenarios, they must be confident in dealing with this (including suicide prevention techniques).
  • Planning and organizational skills – they will likely have to organize their own caseload and patient record keeping. They may also be involved in project development and management.
  • Patience – clients may display challenging behavior and a substance abuse counselor must be able to defuse such behavior in the short term but also work to remodel it in the longer term
  • Attention to detail and observation skills – they need to be able to risk assess individuals who may not always be forthcoming with accurate information.
  • Good working knowledge of relevant laws and legal practices – to be able to provide accurate assistance and insight.
  • Analytical and problem solving abilities – every case will be different and may well require them to think ‘outside of the box’ to find a solution to suit their client.
  • Ongoing personal development – must keep up-to-date with new areas of research, accepted practices and new techniques.
  • Ethical – must be able to maintain strict working ethics as well as adhering to patient confidentiality issues.

What are the Benefits of Being a Substance Abuse Counselor?

As with many jobs in the psychology and counseling fields, substance abuse counseling offers many personal benefits as a result of helping people overcome significant obstacles in their lives. Substance abuse counselors see some clients fail, but they also have many that succeed. Knowing that they have helped a client turn his or her life around can be a source of great pride for workers in this field. There is also much satisfaction to be taken from seeing a client grow, develop, and regain what they have lost as a result of their drug use.

Becoming a substance abuse counselor also has many economic advantages. Many jobs in substance abuse counseling are accessible with a high school diploma and some post-secondary training, which represents a significant savings over other occupations that require a lot of schooling, and thus require a lot of money for college.

Another benefit of entering this field of work is that it is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to experience very rapid growth over the next few years. In fact, the BLS predicts a 31 percent increase in jobs in substance abuse counseling, so there will be ample opportunities for employment throughout the country in this field of work.

What are the Disadvantages of Being a Substance Abuse Counselor?

One of the greatest disadvantages of being a substance abuse counselor is the fact that many clients will fail in their attempt to turn their lives around. Seeing someone struggle with an addiction, as well as seeing the impact that has on their family and friends is extremely difficult. Some substance abuse counselors may feel like they have failed their clients if the client is unable to recover. Likewise, substance abuse counselors may push themselves too hard to bring about change in a client’s life, causing mental and physical strain that diminishes the counselor’s own quality of life.

Working in high-pressure situations with individuals that may relapse and become highly unpredictable adds to the tension and frustration that is common with this type of job. In fact, the stress associated with working with individuals that have a serious drug problem causes many workers in this field to leave for other types of employment.

In some settings, substance abuse counselors may need to work evenings, nights, weekends, and holidays.

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