Complete Guide to Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

What does it take to become a professional substance abuse counselor? For starters, a deep compassion for others and a desire to help them overcome their struggles with substance abuse is essential to perform this life-changing, even life-saving work.

One quick look at the statistics reveals why there is a huge and growing demand for qualified substance abuse counselors:

  • Every day, more than 130 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids.
  • Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% receive treatment.
  • Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990.
  • From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 Americans died from overdosing on a drug.
  • Alcohol is the cause of 5.3% of worldwide deaths (or 1 in every 20) each year.
  • Alcohol and drug addiction cost the U.S. economy over $600 billion every year.


Substance abuse counselors, also called addiction counselors, are often motivated by a personal connection — many have overcome substance issues themselves or have witnessed a loved one’s struggle with addiction.

As a counselor, you’ll make an important difference helping people modify their behavior with the goal of full recovery — meeting regularly with clients throughout their journey to recovery, being there for them in a crisis situation or both. Some counselors work with the families of addicts to help with the healing process.

Potential places of employment for substance abuse counselors include outpatient facilities, inpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, DUI programs, detoxification centers, community health centers, employee assistance programs, mental health treatment settings, hospitals and in private practice.

This is a high-demand profession that offers the opportunity to make a difference in your community as well as in the lives of individuals. One example is by helping to combat the toll of alcoholism and the epidemic of overdose deaths in the U.S.

Given that counselors are responsible for an incredibly sensitive role, helping people who are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, it is not surprising that considerable specialized training is also required.

Guidelines and requirements vary greatly from state to state, with each state administering its own rigorous system for licensing and certification.

The Value of a Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

One of the first and most important questions for anyone considering a career as a substance abuse counselor is this: Does becoming a substance abuse counselor require a bachelor’s degree?

The short answer is that, when it comes to earning your certification, requirements regarding academic degrees also vary widely by state. For that reason, a great first step is to thoroughly review the requirements for becoming a substance abuse counselor in your home state, as well as in any other states where you may be planning to pursue counseling opportunities.

A bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling is required in some states, but not in others; however, academic training will be immensely helpful no matter where you live, since some states that do not require a BS do allow your bachelor’s degree to count against work experience requirements for licensure. This could potentially lessen your work experience requirement by 2,000 hours, the equivalent of a full-time year.

A bachelor’s degree can also be an asset from the standpoint of helping you acquire needed work experience. Some states and some employers will require practicums or internships, which are offered in many university substance abuse counseling programs. Your academic experience will also be helpful in terms of helping you make connections in the field and developing a clear understanding of what types of counseling roles you are most interested in.

Substance Abuse Counseling Certification Requirements

The state-by-state certification process does have some commonalities. Specialized training and work experience are typically required. You must also pass an examination.

Certification agencies in many states are members of the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) or the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC). Through its certification arm — the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) — NAADAC offers ascending three levels of certification.

National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)

Key requirements:

  • High school diploma GED or higher
  • Current credential or license as a counselor issued by a state or credentialing authority
  • 3 years full-time or 6,000 hours of supervised experience as a counselor
  • 270 contact hours of education and training

National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II)

Key requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • Current credential or license as a counselor issued by a state or credentialing authority
  • 5 years full-time or 10,000 hours of supervised experience as a counselor
  • 450 contact hours of education and training

Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)

Key requirements:

  • Master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • Current credential or license as a counselor issued by a state or credentialing authority
  • 3 years full-time or 6,000 hours of supervised experience as a counselor
  • 500 contact hours of education and training

Other certification bodies include the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium, which administers six reciprocal credentials:

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary & Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for “substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors” is $44,630.

Due to the widespread nature of substance abuse — cutting across all demographics — the BLS forecasts that job growth is on track to expand by 23% (2016–2026), much faster than for other occupations.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor as #50 on its list of 100 Best Jobs and #4 in the Social Services category.

A recent search of revealed nearly 3,000 substance abuse counselor jobs and a similar search at employment website returned listings for nearly 10,000 substance abuse counselor positions, including 1,600+ paying over $60,000.

In terms of the career outlook, a sampling of potential job titles for current and aspiring substance abuse counseling professionals includes:

  • Addiction specialist
  • Chemical dependency practitioner
  • Community services worker
  • Corrections officer
  • Guidance counselor
  • Intervention specialist
  • Mental health professional
  • Parole officer
  • Probation officer
  • Social worker
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Substance abuse prevention specialist
  • And more

Bachelor’s degree graduates are also well prepared to continue their studies in advanced degree programs such as mental health counseling, social work, psychology and criminal justice. And those interested in moving on to earn their master’s degree in substance abuse counseling will be well-positioned to earn higher salaries in specialized roles or in private practice.

List of Steps to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

As previously discussed, there is no one pathway to becoming a substance abuse counselor, with each state administering its own system for certification and licensure, often in collaboration with national certification bodies.

  • Thoroughly review your state’s certification requirements.
  • Position yourself to meet your state’s educational requirements.
  • Position yourself to meet your state’s requirements for work experience.
  • Pass your state’s licensing examination.
  • Be prepared to pass a drug test and background check.
  • Identify and apply for substance abuse counseling jobs that appear to be a good fit.

Benefits of Earning Your Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Online

Online degree programs are an excellent option for working substance abuse counselors and full-time students alike. For example, the University of Cincinnati offers an academically rigorous Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling degree program, ranked #7 for online Substance Abuse Counseling programs, that enables you to pace your studies while balancing the demands at home and at work.

The program is also transfer-friendly, meaning that you may be able to transfer credits from previous coursework.  With summer, fall and spring start dates available, it’s easy to begin earning your degree right away.

birds eye view of students working at a round table with laptops and study materials
Need additional student resources?
Already an online student? UC Online has additional tips and tricks to ensure you are on the path to success. Check out our Student Resources section for what you need to maximize your learning.
Corporate Taxation professionals having a meeting
Helping You Build a Better Business Through Continuing Education
Employee recruitment and retention is crucial for the growth and profitability of an organization and should be a high priority for every business. At the University of Cincinnati Online, we want to help develop and retain your employees through our Business Partnership offering.

Sign up for updates from UC Online

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.