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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

For students who wish to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC) working in the field of substance abuse counseling, a master’s in counseling degree followed by 1,500-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience is required in all 50 states. Like other LPCs, substance abuse counselors must also pass a state licensure exam. However, in some states it may be possible to work in substance abuse counseling without formal licensure, depending on the type of job.

What is Substance Abuse Counseling?

Substance abuse counseling – also known as addiction counseling – is a specialization within the counseling profession that requires specific training in the causes and effects of substance abuse, the symptoms of addictive behavior, and the treatment of drug and alcohol dependent individuals. Professional substance abuse counselors work in treatment clinics, community centers, and private practice, offering psychotherapy to individuals and groups suffering from the effects of addiction, substance abuse, and alcohol and drug dependency. They may also provide counseling services to parents, spouses, and other family members who have been impacted by addiction and substance abuse.

How to Become a Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor

Professional substance abuse counselors are LPCs who specialize in treating individuals with addiction, alcoholism, and drug dependency issues. Each state has its own counseling licensure requirements, and some have specific designations for substance abuse/addiction counselors. This varies by state. However, all states require those who provide clinical counseling services to individual and groups to obtain a license. The requirements for licensure also vary by state, but generally include the completion of a master’s degree in counseling, followed by roughly two years (1,500-4,000 hours) of supervised clinical experience in the field. LPCs must then pass a state licensure exam.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) maintains curricular guidelines and provides voluntary accreditation to graduate-level counseling programs. However, because addiction, alcoholism, and drug dependency present unique challenges, substance abuse counselors receive specialized training beyond what CACREP mandates, in areas like pharmacology, physiology, and addiction treatment modalities. The National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) lays out specific guidelines for substance abuse counseling programs. These guidelines are based on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Scopes of Practice for Substance Use Disorder Counseling guidelines, and Addiction Counseling Competencies.

NASAC and CACREP accreditation is voluntary, and each state maintains its own standards for the training of substance abuse counselors. In some states, licensure is handled separately from licensure in other counseling specializations; in others, all professional counselors go through the same licensure process. In many states it is possible to begin working in the field of substance abuse counseling after completing a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies. However, all states require licensure for those intending to practice professionally as clinical counselors. For example, in the state of Arkansas, a high school diploma qualifies you to become a Certified Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Technician; with a bachelor’s degree, you can apply to become a Licensed Associate Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselor; but you need a master’s degree to become a Licensed Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselor.

Because of these variations, it is important to research the specific requirements in the state in which you intend to practice. The Arkansas system for licensure is not atypical. Many states have intermediate levels of licensing for substance abuse counselors. What is important to note is that it requires a master’s degree to practice at the same level as other clinical and mental health counselors, which includes having the freedom to set up a private practice and apply for most professional counseling jobs.

For those who already hold a master’s in counseling, psychology, sociology, or another health/social service discipline, there are post-graduate clinical training programs in addiction and substance abuse counseling that may provide the necessary training to be licensed in most states. There are also PhD programs in addiction studies and substance abuse counseling for those aiming to teach at the college level or work at a research university, but a PhD is not required for state licensure.

Steps to Becoming a Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor

  1. Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program at a regionally accredited college or university.
  2. Consider majoring in addition studies, or take courses in psychology, sociology, and other social and behavioral sciences.
  3. Find out about the specific licensing requirements in substance abuse counseling in the state you intend to seek licensure.
  4. Earn a master’s degree in substance abuse counseling, or complete a master’s in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in addiction and substance abuse treatment.
  5. Apply for a license as a substance abuse counseling intern or assistant if the state has a provision for such licensure.
  6. Complete two years, or 1,500-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience in substance abuse counseling.
  7. Pass the state licensure exam, and complete any additional state requirements like a criminal background check or a state jurisprudence exam.

Addiction and Substance Abuse Counseling Internships

In addition to formal education, all states require professional counselors to complete a certain number of supervised post-graduate clinical internship hours prior to licensure. This varies by state and by the level or type of licensure. For example, in Massachusetts a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor Assistant needs 2,000 hours of work experience, while it takes 6,000 hours of supervised clinical training to become a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor. These different licenses impact the kinds of jobs you can apply for and the types of counseling services you are legally allowed to provide.

While the number of required internship hours varies by state, it is typical for addiction and substance abuse counselors to spend roughly two years gaining in-the-field work experience before applying for licensure. Again, the key is to check the specific requirements dictated by the state in which you intend to apply for licensure.

Additional Licensing Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors

Every state requires licensed professional addiction and substance abuse counselors to pass an exam. The National Counselor Examination (NCE), administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors, is used in some states. Other states use an exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals, which offers Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) certification to those who qualify. Some states may also require applicants to undergo a criminal background check, and to pass a state jurisprudence exam, which tests the applicant’s knowledge of state laws pertaining to counseling. As with other aspects of licensure in substance abuse counseling, it is crucial to research the specific requirements for your state of residence.


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