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How to Become an Addiction Counselor

Written by: Wilson College   •  Jan 31, 2024
An Addiction Counselor Sitting in a Chair Listens to a Client.

How to Become an Addiction Counselor

The job of an addiction counselor can be stressful and challenging. However, individuals who have a strong desire to help others, have empathy and patience, can be nonjudgmental, and enjoy solving complex problems, can truly impact lives as an addiction counselor. At the heart of their role, counselors are healthcare professionals who create a safe and welcoming environment for clients to get the help that they need. 

Those who are interested in becoming an addiction counselor should be aware that the path can vary by state and employer. In most instances, earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field, gaining practical work experience, and obtaining certification are required. 

What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?

Addiction counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors, specialize in treating and advising patients who need assistance overcoming issues related to addiction and substance abuse. They also provide support and guidance through interventions. While duties may vary based on the facility or position, the following responsibilities are common.

  • Review a patient’s medical and drug abuse history
  • Consult with families and patients on treatment options
  • Evaluate a patient’s mental health and emotional needs
  • Make referrals to alternative treatments
  • Lead group and individual counseling sessions
  • Develop and implement custom treatment plans
  • Advocate for patients in court cases, at social service agencies, and in healthcare settings
  • Collaborate with other mental health and healthcare professionals in crisis intervention strategies
  • Maintain confidential and accurate patient records
  • Teach coping mechanisms, trigger management techniques, and relapse prevention tips
  • Operate outreach programs

Steps to Become an Addiction Counselor

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports addiction counselors usually need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, specific job requirements depend on the state, employer, and exact position. 

1. Complete Postsecondary Education

Since many addiction counselors hold a bachelor’s degree, prospective professionals should seek undergraduate majors in social work, sociology, psychology, or mental health counseling. If given the opportunity, they should choose electives that focus on addiction or substance abuse. 

Some schools prepare addiction counselors through undergraduate medical and healthcare humanities programs. What is medical humanities? It’s a multidisciplinary field that combines medicine, arts, social sciences, and humanities. This combination of studies offers a comprehensive education that’s complementary to counseling. 

2. Gain Practical Experience

Hands-on experience is important in most fields, but as an addiction counselor it’s invaluable. Practical experience can be gained through internships, entry-level roles, and volunteer opportunities. Through these positions, future counselors can strengthen their compassion, listening, problem-solving, and patient bonding skills.

3. Obtain Licensure

Licensure may be required in the state in which an addiction counselor is working (and it’s often necessary to go a step further and apply for certification). For addiction counselors who are in private practice, licensure is mandatory. One of the basic licensing requirements involves earning a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field and completing supervised clinical work. For those working outside of a private practice, a specific degree may not be required to obtain licensure, depending on state individual requirements. However, addiction counselors may be required to pass an exam to obtain licensure.

4. Pursue Certification

For addiction counselors in public service, certification may be optional. There are several types of professional counseling certifications to consider to demonstrate expertise, attract employers, and increase salary and career potential. For example, the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals offers the following options:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II
  • Master Addiction Counselor
  • National Certification in Nicotine and Tobacco Treatment
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist

Addiction Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the median salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $49,700 as of May 2022, although salaries vary by employer, education, geographic location, and experience. The BLS reported hospitals offered among the highest salaries, with a median of $54,700. 

The BLS projects employment opportunities for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to rise 18% between 2022 and 2032. This higher-than-average increase is partly due to the spike in addictions, particularly opioid abuse. Experienced counselors will also be needed to replace those who are retiring or changing occupations.  

Train to Become an Addiction Counselor

If you want to know how to become an addiction counselor, education is an important step toward making this career a reality. Wilson College Online offers undergraduate training in healthcare and medical humanities in both clinical and non-clinical paths. Coursework includes bioethics, interpersonal communication, global health, psychology, and a healthcare and medical humanities service project. The goal is to empower students to engage with patients, build trust, and develop strategies to solve complex problems, reduce stress, and resolve conflicts. 

If you’re ready to start a noble and rewarding career, find out how an online Bachelor of Arts in Healthcare and Medical Humanities from Wilson College Online can help prepare you for a career as an addiction counselor.

Recommended Readings

Career Opportunities for Healthcare and Medical Humanities Majors

What Is Medical Humanities?

Occupational Therapy Assistant: Salary and Job Description


The Association for Addiction Professionals, Certification

Indeed, How to Become an Addiction Counselor in 6 Steps (With Tips)

Indeed, How to Earn a Substance Abuse Counselor Certification

Indeed, Substance Abuse Counselor Job Description: Duties and Paths

National Board for Certified Counselors, “Information for Students”

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, Drug Abuse Statistics

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Data

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