How to Become an Addiction Counselor

Addiction counselors help people live happier, healthier lives. Learn how to enter this fulfilling career.
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Published on May 1, 2023
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  • Addiction counselors help clients find new ways to understand and cope with their emotions besides using drugs and alcohol.
  • Some states feature entry-level addiction counselor certifications if you only hold a bachelor's degree.
  • Reciprocity agreements help addiction counselors practice across state lines.
  • Typical addiction counselors earn more than the U.S. median salary.

The addiction counseling field offers you many opportunities to improve people's lives. Becoming a licensed addiction counselor requires a lot of education and training.

Fortunately, online addiction counseling programs provide convenient ways to advance your education and career.

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned a median salary of $48,520 in May 2021. Earning a graduate degree or working for a government agency can raise your salary potential.

What Is an Addiction Counselor?

Addiction counselors help people address the underlying psychological causes of drug and alcohol misuse. They do so through one-on-one sessions, building trust with every person coming through their door. Other typical responsibilities include collaborating with clients' healthcare and rehabilitation providers.

Addiction counselors also counsel friends and relatives of people living with addiction. Counseling sessions help friends and family members understand their loved one's condition and how to provide support at home.

4 Steps to Becoming an Addiction Counselor: Educational Requirements

Becoming an addiction counselor requires education, training, passing exams, and earning licensure. Specific requirements vary by state.

Step 1: Research Educational and Counseling Licensure Requirements

Answering how to become an addiction counselor starts with researching your state's licensure requirements. Typical milestones include earning a specific degree, gaining experience hours, and passing an exam.

Find out your state's licensure reciprocity agreements before enrolling in a program. Reciprocity lets you practice across state lines without taking extra classes or exams.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Start your education by earning a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or a related topic. A typical degree takes four years to complete and requires taking many general education classes.

Depending on your state, a bachelor's degree may qualify you for an associate-level addiction counselor certification or license. However, some states require a master's degree.

Step 3: Gain Field Experience and Complete Exams

Supervised field work allows you to work under knowledgeable professionals and learn more about which addiction counselor jobs align with your career goals. Depending on your target position, this experience may be recommended or required.

As with field experience hours, exam requirements vary by state. Research your state's licensure or certification board for more information.

Step 4: Become Licensed or Certified By Your State Board

Congratulations on meeting your state's requirements! Your state may use one or more regulatory boards for licensure purposes. Typical steps include creating an online account, uploading forms, and paying a fee.

You take continuing education (CE) classes to maintain your addiction counselor certification or license. Each state requires a different number of CE credits. For example, California counselors must earn 40 CE credits every two years.

Featured Addiction Counselor Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?

Addiction counselors perform many roles, including leading counseling sessions. These sessions help professionals decide which treatments best meet their client's needs. Other common tasks may include leading support groups, conducting outreach in the community, and completing administrative tasks.

The addiction counselor responsibilities below describe only a few daily tasks you may perform on the job.

  • Take CE classes to meet state recertification requirements and learn the latest best practices.
  • Counsel family members on ways they can support their relative in recovery.
  • Refer clients to other healthcare providers, such as a physician or psychiatrist.
  • Develop outreach programs to educate community members about the risks of drug misuse.
  • Teach clients to cope with stress in ways not involving drugs or alcohol.

Skills Addiction Counselors Need

Addiction counselors need an advanced skill set to help clients avoid relapsing. Communicating well and building trust help you make personal connections with the people you serve. You can develop these and other skills through your coursework and supervised work experience.

The list below describes just a few skills addiction counselors use. Some jobs may require more skills.

  • Communicate with clients orally and in writing.
  • Approach stressful situations with calm and confidence.
  • Motivate clients to engage in positive change regarding using drugs and alcohol.
  • Desire to help all clients in need, even those who resist change.
  • Treat clients without applying personal judgments or prejudices.

Addiction Counselor Salary

The median annual salary for addiction counselors slightly exceeds the median of $45,760 for all U.S. jobs. You can increase your salary potential in many ways, including earning an advanced degree and changing employers.

The BLS projects the need for addiction counselors to grow by 22% between 2021-2031. This growth rate far exceeds the average for all other U.S. jobs — 5%. Employers may increase starting salaries to attract qualified applicants, as well.

The BLS reports that Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah are the best states for a higher salary in addiction counseling as of May 2022. Note that the best-paying positions may exist in areas with a high cost of living.

Top 5 High-Paying States (Annual Mean Wage, May 2022):

  1. Alaska ($68,770)
  2. Hawaii ($66,610)
  3. Utah ($65,180)
  4. New Jersey ($65,090)
  5. Nevada ($64,890)

Frequently Asked Questions on How to Become an Addiction Counselor

What is the best degree for an addiction counselor?

If you want to become an addiction or substance misuse counselor, a bachelor's degree in addiction counseling is the best place to start.

This degree will qualify you to work directly with patients experiencing substance misuse, alcoholism, or other forms of addiction.

How long will it take to become an addiction counselor?

Most undergraduate degree programs for aspiring addiction counselors take four years. Though, you may be able to speed up the process by attending college online, taking accelerated courses, and transferring previously earned credits.

Are addiction counselors in high demand?

Yes. According to the BLS, jobs for addiction counselors are projected to grow 22% from 2021-2031, adding about 43,000 job openings on average each year.

Plus, we are in the midst of a still-growing opioid epidemic: The National Safety Council reports that the number of 35- to 44-year-old opioid deaths increased by 73% between 2019 and 2021. That to say, we need addiction counselors now more than ever.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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