Addictions/Substance Abuse Counselor Requirements by State

Substance abuse counselors play a vital role in well-being both at the personal level and the societal level. Effects of substance use are all around us: lives lost to prescription drug addiction, relationships and jobs lost to chronic alcohol use, lifelong health risks for kids who develop addictions to nicotine products or who are born to mothers with drug addictions.

It takes some time to become a substance abuse counselor. A person can work in the field, though – and draw a salary – long before he or she meets certification requirements.

“There are many pathways to certification, and no ‘wrong door’ for professionals to enter through,” states the Pennsylvania Certification Board. That sentiment is shared by many!

Roles and Job Settings

Counseling is more than just talking to clients or delivering information. Tasks include screening, orientation, evaluation, and referral, among others. Professional responsibilities are varied, from assessing needs and risks to considering differential treatment models to staying within the boundaries of professional ethics and one’s own scope of practice. Addiction and substance use disorder counselors may have different roles depending on their level of education and experience.

Counselors work in a variety of settings, inpatient and outpatient. They may work with segments of the population such as youth or people who are in the criminal justice system. Among the possible employers are private treatment centers, clinics, health systems, nonprofit organizations, tribal systems, military systems, and correctional facilities.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors may have more varied backgrounds than professionals in mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy. At the undergraduate level, they may draw from fields like psychology and human services; even sociology is sometimes accepted. At the graduate level, one may find individuals trained in expressive arts therapies as well as more traditional counseling disciplines. Some hold primary licensing in fields like social work.

Requirements vary quite a bit from state to state. Many states license substance abuse counselors. In some states, they are certified by third party organizations. Minimum requirements and even accepted certification bodies may be addressed in state code. Typical requirements include discipline-specific education, examination, and supervised work experience. An individual with a bachelor’s degree generally works under supervision for a couple years.

Some states license technicians or counselors with education as low as the high school level. They need to take discipline-specific classes, but the focus is on the basics; these professional hone their skills through practicum and supervised practice. In other states, the minimum educational level is the bachelor’s degree. The trend, education-wise, has been upward in recent years

States often recognize multiple levels of licensure or certification. There can be significant differences in scope of practice. Some requirements met at one level may be applied toward credentialing at the next higher level. In many states, the highest level of credentialing is reserved for individuals with graduate degrees.

The amount of discipline-specific education necessary to qualify for initial licensure varies. Some states set it at just 270 hours. In others, the requirement is much higher.

Substance abuse workers who are in training meet with their supervisors under conditions dictated by their state licensing body. They typically need to meet minimum supervision hours in a number of different areas. The supervisor may submit formal evaluations to the licensing body.

The application process may be involved. Substance abuse counselors may need to solicit several written recommendations. They may need to pass more than one examination along the way.

Training Options

Substance abuse training requirements may be met through noncredit courses and workshops as well as academic ones. Substance abuse counselors may be able to credit courses from multiple providers. They can simplify the process (and earn academic credit) by enrolling in an approved alcohol and drug abuse counseling program. Programs may be designed to meet certification standards of well-known certification agencies as well as standards of the state in which they are housed. There may be certificate and degree options. State licensing boards sometimes provide information about approved programs.

There may be several certification options available in a single state. Some certification boards are affiliated with the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) or the Association for Addiction Professionals (NADAAC). Entry-level substance abuse counselors who are seeking third party credentials go through a state certification board. They typically start out with a status below certification (e.g. registration). They are certified after they meet several additional requirements. They become eligible for national NADAAC certification or reciprocal level IC & RC certification after successful work experience.

Prospective substance abuse counselors may consider how previous degrees will affect their certification options. Some boards allow counselors to climb the career ladder more quickly if they have degrees in approved fields. A person with a clinically focused human service or behavioral science degree is often at an advantage.

Prospective substance abuse counselors may want to take a look at the hiring market as well as state minimum standards when planning their paths. Agencies may be willing to train promising candidates. However, they sometimes seek individuals with higher levels of education than the minimum set down in state code.

There are credentialing options for professionals who are already licensed in fields like medicine or marriage and family therapy. While they may not be mandatory, they can be very useful.

Select a State to Learn about Substance Abuse/Addiction Counselor Requirements