How to Become an Addiction Therapist – Requirements and Degree Programs [2024]

Last Updated: June 25, 2024

What is Addiction Therapy?

Though most people think of drug or alcohol when they think of types of addiction, there are actually many more conditions that fall under addiction. These includes behavioral addictions for gambling, shopping, food, and sex, among others.

Like alcohol and drugs, each of these addictions can be overcome with addiction therapy, which focuses on finding the root cause of the addiction so that the addicted person can understand their addiction and learn skills to overcome their addiction.

Addiction therapy can take a number of different forms. Perhaps most popular is inpatient rehabilitation, in which an addicted person goes to a rehab facility for 30, 60, 90 days or longer, and lives in a controlled setting. While there, patients explore their addictions in order to better understand why they developed and also learn strategies for living on their own once again.

There are also many outpatient rehab programs and individual therapies that address addictions. For example, someone that has already been through an inpatient treatment program might see an addiction therapist for a period of time after his or her release.

These addiction therapists might oversee small therapy groups for people with the same type of addiction or even work one-on-one with clients to help them build the skills they need to overcome their addiction.

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.

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.

Related: Becoming an Addiction Counselor

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 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.

The therapist will 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.

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.

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.

How Do I Become an Addiction Therapist?

Addiction Therapist Degrees

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.

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.

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.

Addiction Therapist Licensure and Certification

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.

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 is an Addiction Therapist Degree?

Getting an addiction therapy degree starts with obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to therapy, or counseling. Usually, this takes the form of a degree in psychology or social work.

In some states, a bachelor’s degree is the only education required to be an addiction therapist, though there are usually additional requirements for licensure and/or certification. In other states, students must continue their education with a master’s degree, which, depending on the program, might take one to three years to complete.

Again, licensure and certification requirements would necessitate further training, and usually takes the form of a period of supervised work under the watchful eye of a veteran addiction therapist.

Where bachelor’s degree programs are typically broader and include studies on varying topics within and outside the realm of counseling and psychology, a master’s program in addiction therapy is much more focused. Not only do students spend more time studying addiction and ways to treat it, but they also spend time in practical situations, applying their skills to real-world situations.

Coursework at the master’s degree level includes advanced studies in psychology, addiction, and treatment, as well as statistics, research design, and therapeutic methods.

Additionally, students in master’s degree programs in this field study ethics and learn how to offer therapeutic services to clients in a way that is professional, ethical, and effective.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Addiction Therapy?

Because there are so many types of addictions and so many career paths for therapists, addiction therapy offers many avenues for developing a career.

Naturally, the type of degree a person has will impact his or her job outlook. For example, a person that has a doctorate in addiction therapy will have more opportunities than someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with some additional training in working with people that have an addiction.

Having said that, workers that have less education will typically find lower-level jobs in this field. For example, a person with a bachelor’s degree might work as an orderly at an inpatient addiction treatment center. A person with a master’s degree might work as a therapist at that same addiction treatment center. Still further, a person with a doctorate might serve in an administrative capacity and oversee the daily operations of the inpatient treatment center.

Addiction therapists also often work in institutions like public health clinics or hospitals. Usually, these jobs involve helping individuals find the services they need to overcome their addiction.

For example, an addiction therapist might work with a team of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to devise a detoxification program for someone addicted to heroin. Likewise, an addiction therapist might coordinate services for a person that’s got a sex addiction.

Another option for someone that holds an advanced degree in addiction therapy is to work in private practice. Therapists that choose this route often offer highly specialized services to very small populations of clients. As an example, an addiction therapist in private practice might only work with clients that have an addiction related to gambling or to food.

The point is that with the right degree, there really is no limit to what someone can do in the field of addiction therapy. You can work with individuals or groups, work in a rehab facility or in private practice, or you could even work in the research sector to help develop a better understanding of why addictions form in the first place.

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.

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 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 2032 the need for addiction counselors will be 18 percent higher than it was in 2022.

As of January 2024, according to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for addiction therapists is $69,409. More experienced therapists earn well over $90,000 per year.

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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