How to Become an Addictions Counselor

How to Become an Addictions Counselor

Addiction happens when an individual becomes overly dependent on potentially harmful substances, such as alcohol or drugs. Addictions counselors, previously referred to as substance abuse counselors, are trained and equipped to treat patients seeking recovery from substance addictions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) aims to reduce the impact of substance misabuse and mental illness on communities across the nation. SAMHSA encourages interested individuals to become counselors to improve behavioral health and improve the lives of people living with and in recovery of substance use disorders.

Substance misabuse remains an issue of national importance, highlighting the significance of addictions counselors in our society. Addiction Center reports that almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction

Becoming a mental health professional who specializes in addictions may seem like a long and intensive process. However, a career in counseling comes with a number of meaningful benefits—like improving clients’ lives—that can outweigh the difficulties. 

Here are four common steps that explain how to become a certified addictions counselor: 

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies, psychology, or other related fields. 
  2. Earn a master’s degree in counseling.
  3. Gain clinical experience through supervised practicum and internships. 
  4. Fulfill licensure and certification requirements. 

What Does an Addictions Counselor Do?

An addictions counselor treats clients who live with or experience addiction to alcohol or drugs, paving powerful paths to recovery. They can support a client by setting treatment goals and maintaining accountability, communicating effective recovery and coping methods, and helping them transition back into careers and relationships.  

Addictions counselors assess, diagnose, collaborate, and create treatment plans. After diagnosis, they typically plan a number of sessions that will walk the client through their thoughts and behaviors, introduce them to healthier alternatives, and allow them to be accountable for their own actions. They can then monitor the client’s progress and assess how far along they are on their recovery journey. Along with friends and family, addictions counselors inevitably become a part of the support network that clients can rely on.

There are various ways a counselor can conduct their services. They can either treat their clients individually or in groups and even partner with other health professionals to ensure the best care and recovery process for the client. Counselors can work in residential care facilities, hospitals, schools, or private clinics, depending on the types of clients that they see. 

Education Requirements for Addictions Counselors

So, what degree do you need to be an addictions counselor? 

Many aspiring counselors start by obtaining their bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as addiction studies, psychology, or social sciences. They then acquire their master’s in counseling, specifically focusing on treating addictions. Aspiring counselors must complete a practicum of a set number of hours and fulfill all licensure and certification requirements before they can work one-on-one with clients. 

Depending on the state, however, addictions counselor education requirements may vary. 

Steps to Become an Addictions Counselor

In order to earn a bachelor’s degree, students must have a high school diploma or GED to apply to universities. Associate degrees take up to two years to complete, but students are often recommended to continue their education and acquire a bachelor’s degree. Depending on life circumstances and the number of courses a student can enroll in per semester, bachelor’s degree programs will traditionally take four years or more to complete.  A bachelor’s degree program in addiction studies, psychology, or a related field will cover the study of the human mind and its possible disorders. Beyond preparing students for a potential future as an addictions counselor, these programs may also open doors to related professional opportunities, such as internships. 

When counselors are not treating patients, they can become educators and lead workshops, projects, or programs that benefit the community and raise awareness of addictions. Education requirements to pursue such a path may vary, so aspiring professionals should do well to research recommended steps beyond the bachelor’s level. 

2. Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

GRE exam scores are not always required, but applicants should extensively research their chosen schools, as not all programs have the same admission and enrollment requirements. Once admitted, they may be expected to take prerequisites in addition to foundational courses that dive deeper into counseling theories, practices, and concepts. 

While some graduate programs take up to two years to complete, some online programs allow students to pursue an accelerated path so they can graduate sooner. Regardless of the timeline, students will have more opportunities to engage in counseling work and learn how to apply their knowledge in real time. 

If students choose addictions counseling as their concentration, they will enroll in elective courses that center around behavior treatment and ethical practices for clients struggling with addiction. They will explore the most efficient and effective ways to support their clients on their recovery journey, making transformation and long-term sobriety possible. 

How a Master of Arts in Counseling Degree from Counseling@Northwestern Helps

Prospective students can study and train to become clinical mental health counselors by enrolling in Counseling@Northwestern, Northwestern University’s online master’s in counseling program. It is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). The online program follows the same curriculum as the one taught on campus. While courses are all conducted online with both synchronous and asynchronous components, the program requires students to participate in in-person experiences that align with their coursework, providing an immersive, engaging, and well-rounded hybrid learning environment. 

Depending on their educational background, students can choose one of two pathways to earning a master’s degree in counseling. The Standard Program offers 24 courses, a practicum, and an internship. The Bridge to Counseling program allows undergraduates who do not have a bachelor’s in psychology or a related field to take prerequisite courses that will gradually lead them to completing the Standard Program. 

The Northwestern curriculum provides six quarters of practicum and internship experience. Students must complete courses alongside the in-person immersions in order to be in good standing. During a practicum, they are expected to learn, internalize, and apply the responsibilities and characteristics of professional counselors.

Hands-on training allows students to engage with clients while being supervised by licensed counselors. They also have the opportunity to practice record keeping, attend conferences and workshops, and engage in self-reflection activities that deepen their understanding of self and others. 

3. Gain Clinical Experience Through Supervised Practicum and Internships

While practicums and internships both equip students with the skills needed to work in counseling, they also have their differences. 

Practicums model ideal counselor techniques. Northwestern students completing their practicum learn through observation as well as direct client contact, indirect client contact, and supervision contact. By contrast, internships are designed to provide students with advanced, hands-on training. Students work under the supervision of a licensed professional to apply the theories and techniques they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life situations. The internship experience requires a student to interact directly with patients and stay engaged in the treatment process. In this type of training, students are typically tasked with some record keeping and can complete a number of hours independently. 

These experiences go hand-in-hand for aspiring counselors, and are required by most counseling graduate programs.

4. Licensure and Certifications Requirements

After completing all graduate courses and accumulating the necessary amount of practicum and internship hours, students must take the final step to becoming fully licensed. 

Each state has its own set of counselor education requirements that the counselor will have to meet in order to be eligible for licensure to practice. Typically, students must have completed all their master’s degree program coursework, which covers a variety of subject areas relevant to the field. Some states require master’s programs to be accredited by a specialized accreditor, such as CACREP. Candidates must also prove that they have completed supervised clinical hours. 

They must then take and pass licensure exams like the National Counselor Examination, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination, or any other exam that is assigned and deemed mandatory by the state board. 

Although these are the base requirements for eligibility, they are subject to change and vary by state. Therefore, it’s imperative that students take the time to research their state requirements and ensure that they meet the qualifications to become a fully licensed professional counselor. Students who want to end up working in private practice should be aware that there may be additional post-license requirements.

Career Outlook and Salary

With spikes in substance use and the complex triggers behind it, demand for professionals who address these issues is expected to increase in coming years. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, there will be 428,500 substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in the US by 2031, up from 351,000 in 2021. This translates to an estimate of 43,600 job openings per year and a 22 percent increase, more than triple the average for all occupations during the same time period.

The BLS states that the need for counselors will remain high as state governments seek to treat people who are incarcerated and live with addiction and mental health disorders. Counselors will most likely have to treat many who not only suffer from addictions, but also other behavioral and psychological disorders caused by different stressors. 

BLS data shows that the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 as of May 2021. The lowest 10 percent of counselors reported earning around $30,870, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,980. It is important to note that addictions counselor salaries can vary by industry. 

Becoming an addictions counselor comprises several steps, but offers many opportunities to support members of various communities and help to set them on the challenging but rewarding path to recovery. 

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the online Master of Arts in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.