How to Become A Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance Abuse Counselors utilize their skills and knowledge to support people recovering from drug addictions or behavioral problems. They provide both 

Should I Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

individual and group counseling sessions. To become a substance abuse counselor, you will have to obtain a certain level of education and undergo professional training which tend to vary from one state to another.

Depending on where you live and intend to work, you may only need a High School Diploma and then train on the job to become a substance abuse counselor. Some other states demand aspiring professionals in the field to hold either a certificate or a Bachelor’s degree. Post-graduate education is also mandated in a few places.

Formal education for substance abuse counselors involves hands-on training during a supervised internship period. This is designed to fulfill state licensing requirements where applicable. Learn more about what you need to do to become a substance abuse counselor in this guide.  



Different levels of qualification from High School Diploma (with on-the-job training) to a Master’s degree are acceptable.

Major Requirement

High School Diploma; Bachelor’s Degree; Master’s Degree; On-the-Job Training


State license/certification required in most places.



Key Skills

Active listening, speaking, critical thinking, reading comprehension, social perceptiveness, problem sensitivity, medical software, electronic mail and spreadsheet software, office suite software, database user interface and query software. (Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors)                    

Annual Mean Wage

$47,920 (May, 2018) (Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors)

Job Outlook

22% increase in employment opportunities projected from 2018 to 2028. (Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors)

Sources: O*Net Online and US Bureau of Labor Statistics

To become a Substance Abuse Counselor, you must be an empathetic and sensitive individual. This challenging role will require you to be a good communicator with the ability to listen and speak clearly. You must also demonstrate proficiency in critical thinking to succeed in this job.

Career Requirements

Different states are likely to have varying requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors. Some of them may let you practice with a certificate, diploma or an associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling. Others may require a master’s degree. Obtaining a license is also binding in many states. Moreover, you might have to complete a specific number of hours at work under the supervision of certified/licensed professionals in the field before you are allowed to work independently.  

Steps to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Follow the steps mentioned below to become a Substance Abuse Counselor.

1)    Earn Your High School Diploma

A High School Diploma or equivalent GED (General Educational Development) certificate is the minimum educational requirement for substance abuse counselors in most cases.

2)    Obtain a Certificate, Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree

Depending on the requirements outlined by your state, you will have to go for specialized education in the field. This can be a certificate program or a professional degree (Associate, Bachelor’s or Master’s).

A comprehensive educational program in substance abuse counseling will cover topics like treatment planning, patient assessment and monitoring, individual and group counseling techniques, case management, crisis intervention, etc. 

3)    Find Employment and Train On the Job

Once you have completed the required education, you can then find work as an apprentice or intern and train on the job. Before you are allowed to practice on your own, you will have to complete a specified number of work hours (as mandated by the state) under the supervision of a licensed/certified substance abuse counselor.

4)    Apply for and Obtain Your State License

After you have gained the minimum required counseling experience, you can then apply for your state license. This usually involves sitting for and passing a licensing exam organized by the relevant state regulatory body. Once you clear this assessment, you are ready to work as a certified/licensed substance abuse counselor.  

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