How to Become a Substance Abuse Counsellor

Substance abuse counsellor conducting group therapy session

If you’ve got an empathetic personality, strong communication skills and a fierce determination to help others, a career in counselling could be hugely rewarding. Substance abuse counsellors, in particular, work with some of the most vulnerable members of society, helping them to deal with and overcome various drug addiction issues.

Indeed, if you feel like you could potentially be suited to this enormously challenging role, then read on; this is the lowdown on how to become a substance abuse counsellor

1. Research the Profession

As with any potential career decision, you should always research the profession thoroughly. This will give you a clearer indication of what you’re letting yourself in for, including any downsides.

Job Description

Substance abuse counsellors – or addiction support workers – are accredited and licensed professionals who provide services (or access to services) such as counselling, healthcare and education. Their primary goal is not to provide medical treatment for the symptoms of drug abuse, but to try and establish – and subsequently tackle – the root cause and reasons for their patients’ dependency. This could also involve working with friends and family to educate and advise on any behavioural impact.

Aside from helping their patients avoid relapse, substance abuse counsellors also aim to reintegrate recovering drug users into a more stable environment. This can be achieved through helping to secure employment or finding volunteer opportunities that can be hugely beneficial to the recovery process.

Substance abuse counsellors work in conjunction with a wide variety of other professionals, including nurses, psychiatrists and mental health specialists, as well as social workers and, in cases of arrest, the police.

Essential Skills and Qualities

In order to succeed in this role, you’ll need:

  • the ability to remain empathetic at all times
  • a calm and caring approach towards all patients
  • an in-depth understanding of substance abuse issues and the effects it can cause
  • a strictly non-judgemental attitude
  • the ability to build and cultivate close relationships with patients
  • excellent communication and listening skills
  • the ability to collaborate closely with a range of organisations and other professionals.

Working Hours and Conditions

Generally speaking, there are no set working hours in this field; many counsellors operate on-call, though, meaning that they work irregular and unsocial hours. Depending on the role, it might also be possible to work part-time.

Their work is carried out in a wide variety of locations, such as visiting drug users within the community and providing recovery assistance and guidance, or within designated drop-in centres where they conduct one-on-one or group therapy sessions. They can also be found in:

  • state, local and private hospitals/medical centres
  • prisons, probation and parole agencies
  • halfway houses and juvenile detention facilities.

Salary Prospects

In the UK, the National Careers Service advises that annual salaries can start at around £17,000, potentially rising to as high as £40,000, depending on experience. However, this is a slight simplification, as many contracts are paid hourly – particularly in part-time or temporary positions. The average hourly salary for a substance abuse counsellor is between £14 and £17.

In the US, where there is a more defined qualification pathway, the salary structure is less ambiguous, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The average pay packet sits at around $42,000 (£30,150) per year or $20 (£14) per hour, with hospitals (public and private) generally offering the highest rates of pay.

2. Get the Qualifications

In the UK, there are technically no formal qualifications required to become a substance abuse counsellor, with the emphasis more on personality. That said, any work experience – paid or otherwise – in a related field, such as nursing, social work, criminal justice or youth work, would be hugely beneficial. Alternatively, if you have previous personal experience of substance dependency, you could also be highly suitable for this line of work.

In the US, candidates with a relevant bachelor’s degree would be eligible to pursue a state-specific practice license, such as the Licensed Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor (LADC) qualification. This would typically need to be supported by around 2,000 to 4,000 supervised clinical hours, as well as the successful completion of various criminal background checks.

For candidates without a degree, it is possible to attain the Certified Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor (CADC) certification, which can lead to LADC eligibility with experience and more clinical exposure. In some states, you may also be required to undertake a master’s degree.

3. Land Your First Job

Most jobs are advertised directly by health boards and other public services employment pathways, such as prisons, schools and medical centres; private and charitable organisations may also advertise vacancies. If you are already working in a similar field, such as social work or nursing, there may be internal courses and training opportunities to specialise in substance abuse.

Alternatively, many counsellors, particularly in the UK, offer their services on a voluntary basis, usually part-time and on top of their existing career. This can lead to a more permanent position and is a useful transitional tool if you are considering a full-time career change.

Some useful counselling-specific job resources are:

  • British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) (UK)
  • iHireMentalHealth (US)
  • NHS Jobs (UK)

4. Develop Your Career

Depending on your motivation and ambitions for career growth, as well as your work environment, there is scope to specialise or take on more senior roles. Although they may lead to a decrease in clinical hours and less exposure to patients, they can represent a viable and challenging leadership pathway, encompassing sought-after management skills such as strategy and policy implementation. Such roles could include:

  • coordinating volunteers
  • leading project teams
  • services management
  • creating initiatives, especially if you work within a particular community group.

In terms of professional development, UK counsellors are encouraged to apply for BACP membership, which demonstrates adherence to high standards of ethical practice, as well as opportunities to participate in various short courses and training programmes all the way up to postgraduate level. In the US, individual state boards offer similar development opportunities.

Many private, voluntary and charitable organisations also organise their own in-house training activities, focused primarily on the needs of their specific client group, while becoming a self-employed counsellor is also an option.

Job Outlook

Although many outreach programmes and private community initiatives in the UK are reliant on external funding and core teams of volunteers, there is still a strong demand for accredited and experienced counsellors in the NHS and the private sector. Indeed, with social stigma around drugs decreasing, and the public generally adopting a more open attitude to the ways of treating it, the services of substance abuse workers will likely continue to grow over the next few years.

This is certainly the story in the US, too, where the BLS asserts that job growth in the sector is set to increase by 23% over the next 8 years – a rate, they claim, that is ‘much faster’ than the average occupation.

With this predicted increase in demand, now is a better time than ever to become involved in this hugely challenging but rewarding profession. If you want to truly make a difference in someone’s life and spend each day helping people when they are at their most vulnerable, then this could be the ideal career for you – why not consider it?

Do you already work in this field? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!

Not sure becoming a substance abuse counsellor is right for you? Check out our list of career paths for inspiration!


Salary information is based on data compiled and published by the National Careers Service and the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by on 19 March 2018.