How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance Abuse counselors are mental health professionals who help clients manage addiction. Substance abuse counselors assist clients, as well as their families, friends, and loved ones, manage drug, alcohol, and other addictions. Substance abuse counselors often work closely with and are supervised by doctors, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals. Substance abuse counselors often assist former addicts in managing their addictions and devise treatment options for those who they are becoming addicts. Substance abuse counselors offer support and guidance to those struggling with addiction and the people whose lives are affected by a friend or loved one’s addiction as well. Substance abuse counselors also assist clients with practical problems like finding jobs or housing, in an effort to rebuild an addict’s life. Substance abuse counselors focus on discussing, understanding, coping with, and managing addiction and the impact on a person’s entire well being.

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Substance abuse counselors do not prescribe medication but often work closely with qualified professionals who do. Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of facilities, like outpatient clinics, hospitals, halfway houses, treatment centers, or human service agencies. Many substance abuse counselors are former addicts who have successfully managed their own addictions and commit themselves to help others. Substance abuse counselors treat clients in a one on one setting or in group sessions.

Training to become a substance abuse counselor begins through a variety of life experiences and formal educational or job training. Successful substance abuse counselors must possess personal attributes of compassion, understanding, and be non judgmental. Individuals who aspire to be substance abuse counselors must adhere to confidentiality and ethical professional standards. Preparation for a career as a substance abuse counselor can begin during high school. High school students must fulfill core requirements in English, communications, biology, psychology, and sociology. Students who wish to become substance abuse counselors can volunteer as peer counselors or work during summers and vacations at treatment facilities. Substance abuse counseling is an increasingly competitive field of study. Many training programs expect prospective students to possess a strong grade point average in addition to involvement in volunteer organizations, community projects, and extracurricular activities.

Most substance abuse counselors possess a minimum requirement of a high school diploma. Most substance abuse counselors receive “on the job” experience through job training programs or certificate programs. Most training programs range from six weeks to two years. Some colleges and universities offer training programs in substance abuse counseling. An associates degree through an accredited college or university offers individuals a foundation to build a career in substance abuse counseling. Courses of study generally include psychology, sociology, biology, communications, effects of alcohol and other drugs, and crisis intervention. Most substance abuse counselors are trained to handle emergency situations involving medical or emotional problems in a crisis intervention program. Substance abuse counselors are generally required to possess certification through a college degree program or training program through the National Board of Certified Counselors. Certification requirements vary by state. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) are tremendous sources of information regarding training and certification requirements. After attaining an associates degree in Substance Abuse Counseling, individuals can further educational pursuits or enter the work force as half-way house directors, substance abuse counselors, adolescent counselors, or behavioral disorder counselors.

Individuals who choose to further educational pursuits may enter a bachelor degree program. A bachelor degree program in counseling, psychology, social work, or a related mental health field allows students to attain career and educational goals. A bachelors degree program provides students with the tools needed to prevent substance abuse, counsel clients and their families with drug and alcohol addictions, and perform intervention or therapeutic services for addicts and their families. Course of study in a four year bachelor degree program in a mental health services field like rehabilitation specialties, psychology, sociology, or nursing. Students concentrate studies in individual and group counseling skills, psychology of addiction, crisis intervention, substance abuse identification methodologies, substance abuse treatment modalities, substance abuse prevention and treatment resources, pharmacology and the behavior aspects of abused substances, treatment evaluation, patient observation, education, group dynamics, professional standards and ethics, and applicable law and regulations. Graduates of a bachelor degree program must pass certification exams though the National Board for Certified Counselors depending upon state requirements. A bachelor degree and successful certification allows candidates to gain employment as substance abuse counselors, half-way house directors, adolescent counselors, as well as a variety of mental health related career opportunities. Individuals may also choose to advance to a master degree program to specialize educational training.

An increasing number of students enter substance abuse counseling programs to earn masters degrees. Students in graduate degree programs learn specialized educational techniques to apply to career goals as upper level administrators and practitioners in substance abuse counseling. Students in graduate degree programs study core courses like multicultural counseling, ethics and standards of practice, mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning, theories of counseling and psychology, theories of chemical dependency, chemical dependency assessment and diagnosis, chemical dependency treatment planning and relapse prevention, and skills and techniques in counseling. Masters degree programs in the field of substance abuse counseling combine specialized course work focused upon leadership, management, public policy, developmental issues, and human dynamics. Most graduate programs require students to complete an internship and certification requirements to instill the skills needed to hold upper level occupations as substance abuse counselors within private practices or treatment centers. Some individuals may further educational goals by entering a doctoral degree program.

Doctoral degree programs allow students with psychology and other mental health related degrees to specialize studies in the field of addiction or substance abuse counseling. A variety of traditional and online college or university programs allow students to study comprehensive courses to attain a doctoral degree. Core course requirements depend upon the field of specialization as well as state determined certification requirements. Students enrolled in doctorate programs intensively study ethical issues, theories intervention and techniques, group therapy, marriage and family addictions counseling, addiction counseling and prevention with adolescents and children, therapy and recovery strategies, and addiction issues in society. Students enrolled in doctoral programs must complete prerequisite requirements in psychology, behavior psychology, or social sciences. Students also must successfully attain a masters degree. Students in doctoral programs must also conduct research in independent or group studies as well as write a publishable dissertation. Students who complete doctoral degree programs are qualified for certification as determined by state regulations. Candidates then can pursue employment in social services, treatment facilities, as substance abuse counselors, as researchers at top universities, or as teachers within schools or universities.

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