Substance Abuse Counselor: Is It The Right Choice for You?

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Substance abuse counselor in group meeting

Substance Abuse Counselor Job Growth

In 2013, reported that 24.6 million Americans ages 12 and older admitted to having used an illicit drug the previous month; that’s up 8.3% from 2002 – it is also 9.4% of the total U.S. population. In a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 10.2% of people age 12 and over admitted to using illicit drugs or alcohol in the month prior to data collection. There is no doubt that drug and alcohol abuse is a growing problem in the United States. It is devastating lives, tearing families apart, and disrupting careers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substance abuse counseling is an emerging profession with a projected growth rate of 22% by 2024. This growth is much faster than the average of other U.S. career growth rates. This employment growth will add approximately 21,000 new substance abuse counselor positions.

Salary and Wages of Substance Abuse Counselors

In 2015, the median pay for a substance abuse counselor was about $40,000 a year or $20 an hour. The top 90th percentile earned an average yearly wage of about $63,000 or an hourly rate of $30.

Career Opportunities

This chart below from illustrates the variety of career opportunities available to substance abuse counselors and indicates each career’s expected salary.

Substance Abuse Counselor's Annual Base Salary

As demonstrated above, there is a wide range of career paths for substance abuse counselors. Before navigating into the field, it is important for people to consider their temperament. People who have empathy, patience, and excellent social skills will have a much higher level of job satisfaction in this field. Helping struggling people find their way is an extremely rewarding experience for people that enjoy public service.

Steps to Success

Licensure Requirements

Substance abuse counseling careers have less rigorous training requirements than other counseling specialties. The standards vary by state, as you can see in the table below that shows substance abuse counseling licensure requirements for New York, California, and Florida. Other state’s requirements are available here.

Substance Abuse Counselor Licensure Requirements by State

StateEducationTotal Work Experience Hours RequiredOversight During InternshipExam
New York350 hours, including 85 hours regarding substance abuse content and 150 in substance abuse counseling
  • 6,000 if no college degree
  • 5,000 if Associate’s Degree
  • 2,000 if Bachelor’s Degree
  • 0 for Master’s Degree
300 hours and 3 professional evaluationsState exam
California155 hours of classroom education plus 9 hours of introductory courseworkDepends on the 5 Boards that provide certification: could be 2,240 hours in a state-licensed facility, 5 years experience (no Master’s), and others depending on level of educationVaries by agencyVaries by agency
Florida250 hours of training including 120 hours on addiction and practice
  • 6,000 if high school graduate
  • 4,000 if Associate’s degree
300 if high school graduate; 150 hours with associate degreeState Exam

Education Required

Although a bachelor’s degree is not always required to become a substance abuse counselor, it does provide a rich foundation as well as exposure to required chemical dependency training modules. It is also the quickest way, aside from obtaining a master’s degree, to getting a job in this career field.

Below is a list of top substance abuse counselor schools in the U.S. The schools featured in the chart below offer degree options ranging from the undergraduate level to the graduate level. Some also offer certificate programs.

Top Substance Abuse Counselor Schools

School NameSchool DistinctionLocation
East Carolina UniversityGraduates of the master’s program can subtract one year from the two years of experience required for licensureGreenville, NC
Mercy CollegeCredits earned through the Substance Abuse Counseling Certificate program can be applied toward a relevant associate or bachelor’s degreeDobbs Ferry, NY
New York Institute of TechnologyNYIT has three foreign campusesWestbury, NY
Ohio ChristianProgram provides 180 hours of chemical dependency educationCircleville, OH
Portland Community CollegeHas the largest addictions counseling program in OregonPortland, OR
Southern University at New OrleansTrans-disciplinary substance abuse counseling programNew Orleans, LA
University of California – San DiegoPracticum requirementLa Jolla, CA
University of CincinnatiStudents can choose onsite or online classesCincinnati, OH
University of Detroit MercyThe program is among the first addictions counseling programs in the countryDetroit, MI
University of the PacificAn online program in substance abuse counseling is availableStockton, CA

List from

Private Practice

To open a private practice in substance abuse counseling, which is the most lucrative career option in the field, states almost universally require a master’s degree. Following a master’s degree, national and state licensing exams must be passed, followed by supervised internships.

Employment Prospects for Substance Abuse Counselors

The most likely venues for employment for substance abuse counselors include:

  • Rehabilitation centers: Range of positions from small group-discussion facilitator and one-on-one counseling
  • Hospitals: Clinics and urgent care settings
  • Schools: Usually requires a master’s degree
  • Methadone clinics: Range of positions including one-on-one counseling

Substance abuse counseling is a rapidly growing career based on societal needs and government programs, and employment opportunities are rising rapidly. State requirements vary, so before moving forward, make sure you know where you want to practice.


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