According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an initiative of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 20.7 million people in the United States needed treatment for substance abuse disorders in 2017. This means that approximately one in every 13 people, including one in seven young adults, required a substance abuse counselor.

What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor provides professional advice and guidance to people who struggle with substance use disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the standard diagnostic tool for the mental health profession, a person could potentially have a substance use diagnosis if he or she uses alcohol, drugs or both at a level that impairs his or her health and ability to function.

Employment for substance abuse counselors is available in both public and private settings. The most common setting is the outpatient treatment center, but residential facilities and hospitals are common employers for professionals in this field, as well. There are also opportunities for substance abuse counselors to work in prisons, parole agencies and juvenile detention centers.

Substance abuse counselors work with people who are in vulnerable states. They may have lost or be in the process of losing jobs, relationships and even housing. More than 45 percent are dealing with a co-occurring mental illness, according to the SAMHSA survey. To work compassionately and effectively with this population, a substance abuse counselor needs a particular skill set and must be able to handle simultaneous job duties.

Job Responsibilities

A substance abuse counselor needs to have excellent interpersonal skills as well as the ability to manage heavy caseloads. According to respondents on Payscale, job responsibilities for counselors working in this field include:

  • Evaluating clients for substance use disorder and other diagnoses
  • Collecting key information about clients’ histories and current levels of functioning to create personalized treatment plans
  • Providing one-on-one and group counseling, as the position and setting indicates
  • Reporting as required to supervisors, agency leaders and other involved professionals

Career Outlook

Considering the need for drug and alcohol treatment in the United States today, it is not surprising that the job outlook for substance abuse counselors is excellent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of positions available is expected to increase by 23 percent by the year 2026. This rate of growth is much higher than the average across all industries and translates to more than 60,000 new jobs within the decade.

The job market is already very good for substance abuse counselors. More than 102,000 professionals are currently employed in the field, which has an overall employment rate of 96.9 percent.

Salary Expectations

The average salary for a substance abuse counselor is $38,526, according to respondents on Payscale. With experience, this can increase to $41,000 for counselors with up to 20 years of experience and an average of $44,000 with more than 20 years of experience.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

The qualifications for substance abuse counselors vary by state, but most positions require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. Professionals with degrees in the social sciences, a field that includes mental health and social work, are particularly employable because of the additional competencies that they offer to an agency or treatment facility.

Even if you have a job or other responsibilities that take up most of your day, you can still earn your bachelor’s degree through an online or hybrid program. The online social science bachelor’s degree at Bethel University lets you complete the vast majority of your coursework in a digital format so that you can earn a degree around your schedule. Contact a Bethel representative today for more information.

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