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How to Become a Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counsellor in the USA

Approximately 23.5 million people above the age of 12 years received treatment for substance abuse in 2009 in America. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors provide support and recovery treatment to substance abusers and help them reintegrate back into the society. They also help addicts repair broken relationships in their lives.

What Does a Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor Do?

Their work varies depending on the job description. Some of their roles include:

  • Evaluating the psychological and physical health of a patient, depth of their addiction
  • Determining whether a patient is ready and willing to commit to treatment
  • Picking the most suitable treatment options for a patient that will lead to a successful recovery process
  • Discussing with the patient and their loved ones the root causes of the addiction or behavioral problem
  • Identifying possible impediments to a successful recovery
  • Conducting therapy sessions for individuals in the program on a one-on-one basis or group session
  • Conducting sessions with the family and friends of the patient to guide them on their responsibilities in helping the patient beat their addiction or behavioral problem, and help them develop coping skills
  • Referring the patient to programs best suited for their addiction or behavioral problem
  • Assisting the patient to acquire long-term management skills for the addiction such as support groups, or employment
  • Organizing outreach programs to sensitize the community on addiction and behavioral problems, their effects and the programs available for afflicted persons.


Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors’ salary depends on the institution you are employed in. Inpatient facilitiespay higher rates because you may need to work odd hours.

Entry Level



Mid Career






Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics



Requirements for a job as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor may vary from state to state, so you have to check with your state’s provisions. However, the general requirements include:

  • A high school diploma.
  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree in applied psychology with key focus on clinical psychology. Coursework includes patient assessment, social psychology, crisis resolution, case management and psychological psychology.
  • Approximately2,000 to 4,000 hours of clinical experience under the guidance of a certified mental health professional.
  • Pass a licensing or certification exam; however, you require a master’s degree to become a certified or licensed counsellor.
  • Participate in continuing education every year for recertification.

Working as a counselor requires you to possess good interpersonal and communication skills, and show empathy and patience when working with your patients.

Work Environment

Addiction counselors work in various settings including hospitals, mental health facilities, detox centers, residential treatment centers and prisons. They usually work full-time, and may be called to work night-shifts or during weekends. Because they work with people facing addiction or behavioral problems, the work environment may be stressful. As a substance abuse counselor, you may interact with agitated, violent and overly emotional patients. You may also handle heavy workload with limited resources, depending on the treatment center.

Career Growth and Job Prospects

There is expected growth of 31% in employment for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors between 2012 and 2022. Federal legislation, such as, the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance providers to extend services to mental health is a major contributor to increased employment opportunities in this field. In addition, the preference by courts to order counseling and rehabilitation services for drug offenders as opposed to jail term has also increased employment opportunities.

If you want a career that puts you in close proximity with people in need of support to recover from addiction, then consider this profession.


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