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What to Expect When You Work in Substance Abuse Counseling

On paper, the job description for a substance abuse counselor may appear straightforward: Help people recover from addiction issues and modify harmful behaviors.

Ask a substance abuse counselor what he or she does, and you’ll hear emotional tales of changing and saving lives. Substance abuse counselors attempt to elicit the best in people when they’re at their worst. And for some psychology professionals, the substance abuse field can be a very personal pursuit.

“For most people entering the addiction field, there is an underlying reason why they want to get in the field,” said George Bortnick, assistant professor of psychology at New England College. “When I teach an addiction class, I’d say out of 30 students, two to four would admit to having their own personal addictions and another two to four would admit to having a family member.”


Read More: State of Substance Abuse in the United States


The job outlook for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is expected to grow 23% from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2016, the average annual salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor was $44,160 a year. Actual salaries may depend on location, educational attainment, work environment and myriad other factors. Students are encouraged to conduct their own salary research.

As one of NEC’s Psychology degree concentrations, students should expect to learn about cognitive, forensic and abnormal psychology, as well as human development, research methods and emerging theories. Students interested in a Psychology degree with a concentration in Addiction and Substance Abuse can select electives for them to specialize in the field.

The coursework covers a variety of questions:

  • How do drugs interact with the human body, and how are they misused?
  • Why are certain drugs considered legal why others are outlawed?
  • What is the social and cultural impact of substance abuse?
  • How do counselors effectively provide treatment for substance abuse?
  • How can legalization affect the societal impact and treatment of substance abuse?

How to Enter the Field

Some substance abuse counselors work for criminal justice agencies and programs. They may work at community centers, major healthcare providers or in private practice. Some work for major healthcare providers or for companies seeking experts to design support systems and education programs for employees.

Counselors may opt to provide one-on-one support or work with groups. They can stay in one location, or travel from site to site. Some professionals take an interest in research, analyzing and reporting information that can help other counselors provide a higher level of care.

In addition to a psychology degree, which most employers require, counselors specializing in substance abuse must possess a license to practice and supervised clinical experience, according to the BLS. Requirements may vary by state. More information can be found through the National Board for Certified Counselors and the Addiction Technology Transfer Network.

A counselor needs to communicate clearly, without confusion or judgment. Active listening is important, as it helps to demonstrate concern and convey understanding. Counselors must also be able to demonstrate empathy, the ability to understand a person’s feelings and motives, as well as think critically to determine the best course of treatment for each individual.

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