Substance Abuse Counseling and Psychology Degrees

The Basics

Substance abuse (which can refer to the use of alcohol as well as drugs) is one of the most pressing health problems in America, affecting millions of people. While it is certainly not a new problem, 21st century technology has made possible the creation of more varieties of drugs than ever before.

Because of the various other (possibly contaminated) substances added to these drugs, the potential for damage is compounded. In addition, many users combine different drugs or drugs with alcohol to enhance the effect, thereby creating more problems. Or, conversely a different substance may be taken to offset the effects of the primary one. For example, an individual taking a stimulant like cocaine who has difficulty falling asleep might take alcohol or a sedative for this purpose.

Some substances, like mind altering hallucinogens or highly toxic inhalants can cause irreversible harm, or even be fatal, after just one dose.

A commonly held perception is that substance abuse is only prevalent in socioeconomically deprived, predominantly minority group neighborhoods, but the truth is no one is exempt from this disorder. In fact, even individuals in the medical profession, who certainly should know better, are vulnerable because of their easy access to all kinds of substances and ability to forge their own prescriptions. In addition, many patients who are prescribed drugs such as opioids, sedatives, or amphetamines for a legitimate medical reason do not follow the doctor’s orders and self-medicate with much higher doses. It is only a matter of time before their reliance on the drug escalates into a full-blown substance use disorder.

Another reason why substance abuse is so prevalent in today’s society relates to the demands and pressures of modern life. When they become too overwhelming for a person to deal with, drugs and alcohol might seem like an easy escape. Under those circumstances, association with other substance users can make the temptation hard to resist.

Whatever the reason for a particular individual developing a substance use problem, the combination of physical and psychological dependence can make the habit very hard, and often near impossible, to break on one’s own. Substance abuse counselors receive advanced training both in the nature of addiction and proven treatment methods that can help those with a substance use disorder find other non-destructive ways to spend their time. Unfortunately, relapse is common, but substance abuse counselors are able to help significant numbers of people recover from their illness so they can better realize their potential and become productive members of society.

What is a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Colleges and universities offer a variety of programs which a person who is interested in becoming a substance abuse counselor can pursue. While some counseling positions only require a Bachelor’s degree, or even an Associate’s degree may suffice, a minimum of a Master’s degree in substance abuse counseling or a related field, followed by supervised training in a clinical setting, is usually necessary. In addition, many employers may only hire state licensed and nationally certified counselors, which will entail meeting additional requirements, including not only a minimum amount of supervised substance counseling experience, but also passing requisite background checks and written and oral examinations.

Ordinarily, a Ph.D. is not required to become a substance abuse counselor, but additional career opportunities become available to Ph.D. holders, at higher pay, especially for those who are interested in teaching or research jobs.

The specific course of study will vary from one college or university to another, but the following are the four broad educational tracks that can be chosen and the length of time of each in preparation for becoming employed in the field of substance abuse counseling.

  • Community College: Associate’s – 2 years – Campus or Online
  • Undergraduate Studies:  B.A or B.S. in Psychology or Counseling – 4 years – Campus or Online
  • Graduate Studies:  M.A. or Substance Abuse or related field or M.S.W – 2-3 years – Campus or Online
  • Doctoral Studies: Ph.D. in  Addiction  Psychology or related field – 4+ years – Campus or Online

What is the Difference Between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

An Associate’s degree or preferably a Bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling or a related field is an excellent first step for students who think they might be interested in a career in substance abuse counseling to learn more about the field and test the waters. Many people think they want to go into this field because of a strong desire to help people, or perhaps substance abuse was something that they themselves or someone in their immediate family struggled with personally.

However, not everyone is cut out to work in this demanding field. While entry level positions usually don’t pay much, they are a way for those with an interest of continuing their training to gain valuable practical experience. They are also a way for those who realize that this line of work is not for them after all to avoid making the considerable commitment of both time and finances that pursuing a graduate degree would entail.

An undergraduate level substance abuse counseling degree will lay the groundwork for further training by introducing the student to the fundamentals of general, developmental, and cognitive psychology and personality theory and psychopathology. Master’s degree programs in substance abuse counseling build upon the introduction to this field of study that the student received at the undergraduate level by providing content that is much more specialized.

While there are certain characteristics that are common to substance abusers in general, there are also many individual differences, both in the severity of symptoms and in the type of clinical intervention that would be appropriate. Different substances also have different physiological and psychological effects on the body, and this is information that is essential for substance abuse counselors to be well versed in prior to being hired. Substance abuse counseling Master’s degree programs teach students not just the basic counseling skills, but also the specific information they need to know about substance abuse to better understand its mechanisms and how to treat the many different manifestations of this complex disorder.

What Do You Learn in a Substance Abuse Counseling Master’s Degree Program?

Most accredited Master’s degree in substance abuse counseling programs include classes in the following:

  • Group counseling techniques
  • Specific treatment methods used by those diagnosed with a drug or alcohol use disorder
  • Advanced techniques in individual assessment, diagnosis, and counseling
  • The role of the family in treatment
  • Contemporary issues in drug and alcohol abuse

When the requisite coursework has been completed, in order to satisfy the remaining requirements for the degree, the student will probably need to complete an internship. Internships give students the chance, under close supervision, to demonstrate their ability to apply the material learned in class to actual clinical settings where people with substance abuse issues have come to get help.

What is an Online Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

Online education has become an increasingly popular way for those who, for one reason or another, find attending regular classes at a university impractical, to take equivalent courses leading to the same degree online, and the field of substance abuse counseling is no exception.

Online programs preparing students to become substance abuse counselors are much more flexible than those that require attending classes at a brick and motor college or university. Since students are using their own home computer, they can take the classes at times that fit their own personal schedule.

Some schools with online programs offer the opportunity to complete the coursework at an accelerated rate, but this is not mandatory. If other work or family responsibilities preclude pursuing an advanced degree except on a part time basis, at a slower pace, that option is available, too.

It is not uncommon for individuals interested in pursuing their studies beyond their Bachelor’s degree with the hope of becoming licensed substance abuse counselors to put their graduate studies on hold because of family responsibilities or the need to work to meet expenses. Online programs could be a viable option that will not interfere with those constraints, but instead pave the way to achieving one’s career aspirations sooner rather than later.

However, prior to selecting and enrolling in a specific substance abuse counseling online Master’s degree program, prospective students should check the licensing requirements in their state to see if the program being considered will satisfy those requirements. When selecting an online program, it is also very important to determine before that the school and program is accredited.

What Does It Take to Get a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Getting a degree that will qualify recipient for the position of substance abuse counselor entails hard work and commitment. Figure on four years initially to obtain an undergraduate degree and another two years (or more) to obtain a Master’s degree. The following are some of the important personal characteristics which will determine the likelihood of success.


While financial aid is available to students who qualify, there is no doubt that the costs of both undergraduate and graduate programs are high. Having adequate financial resources to start with or a means of earning income while pursuing a degree could mean the difference between whether a student is able to complete the desired program or not.


Time is a related practical factor that must be considered. Even when the only option is to study for an advanced degree part time, there still must be enough time allocated for this purpose. Taking on too much at once, such as family responsibilities, a demanding job, and several graduate school courses can jeopardize one’s health and probably will not work. Keep in mind, too, that substance abuse treatment is an area of study that is not only intellectually demanding, but at times emotionally draining. Proper balance with some off time for recreational activities and hobbies, or just to unwind and relax, is essential in order to emerge from the rigorous program energized rather than burnt out.


The combination of advanced knowledge, counseling skills, and the ability to respond quickly and appropriately in unforeseen emergencies, all of which are needed to be an effective substance counselor, cannot be acquired overnight. The advanced degree which is the steppingstone to this position is the product of many long hours of study where, since immediate results are few, one’s eye must be on the long-term goal.

Communication Skills

In order to succeed at substance abuse counseling, excellent communication skills are a must. Starting treatment is a frightening experience because the crutch (drugs or alcohol) that the user has relied on for so long is being taken away and there is nothing tangible to take its place. So the counselor must be empathic and reassuring rather than judgmental. He or she must be the kind of person those with a substance use problem would feel they can trust.

Substance abuse counselors must be good listeners who are capable of being responsive to the patient’s fears and concerns. But at the same time, substance abusers are very adept at finding excuses or covering up the truth and telling counselors what they want to hear. Substance abuse counselors should not tolerate this kind of behavior.

Substance abusers come from all walks of life, and many of them might have limited vocabulary. So the counselor needs to communicate clearly and not talk down to them or over their heads. Fluency in Spanish is highly desirable due to the large number of Hispanic substance abusers.

Social skills

Substance abuse counselors do not just work with their patients, but with the patients’ families and with other staff members. They must be capable of getting along with others and recognizing that they are part of a team all working together to help the individuals entrusted to their care overcome their addiction.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?


An advanced degree in substance abuse counseling is worth the time and effort by those who are truly committed to this line of work because it will open the door to many fulfilling career opportunities that would not exist otherwise. These are some of the advantages that a Master’s degree in substance abuse counseling can offer.

  • Potential for a high paying job, especially with increased experience in the field.
  • Field with strong growth potential: There will always be a need for qualified substance abuse counselors.
  • Many diverse employment options: Substance abuse counselors can decide where they want to work. They are needed in schools, hospitals, clinics, homeless shelters, and private agencies. In addition, some large companies may have a substance abuse counselor on staff whom employees with a problem can consult. Another trend today is for judges to order mandatory substance abuse counseling in lieu of jail time for those convicted of drug or alcohol related offenses.
  • Personal satisfaction that comes from helping troubled individuals turn their lives around.


Substance abuse counseling is not for everyone. These are some of the disadvantages associated with this line of work.

  • An advanced degree is required to become a substance abuse counselor, and additional requirements must be met to become licensed and certified.
  • Starting salaries are less than in other fields of study for people with comparable training.
  • The work can entail long hours and be mentally and emotionally draining, especially with clients who are uncooperative with the treatment plan.

How Much Can You Make With a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

The mean average wage for substance abuse counselors in 2019 was reported as $44,160. However, some substance abuse counselors make as much as $70,000 per year. Clinical/counseling psychologists with a Ph.D. in substance abuse counseling or a related field like addiction psychology earn more, at least $70K per year on the average, but with some salaries exceeding $110K. The doctorate degree qualifies them to open up their own practice as certified, licensed substance abuse counselors. They are also qualified to teach and conduct research at a college or university.

What Degrees are Similar to Substance Abuse Counseling?

The following similar degrees may be acceptable for a substance abuse counseling position in lieu of a substance abuse counseling degree if substance abuse was part of the course of study:

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