How to become a substance abuse and addiction counselor

February 13, 2024 · 5 min read · By ASU Online
Interested in learning about what substance abuse and addictions counselors do? Read on to get the details on this profession, including the education, licensure requirements and skills you’ll need to succeed in this role.

Substance use and addiction constitute one of the largest preventable health problems facing the U.S. today, but it’s estimated that less than 20% of those in need receive any substance use treatment, and only a small fraction of those in treatment receive evidence-based treatment. This statistic showcases the demand for substance abuse and addiction counselors who can provide the necessary support in this field.


What do substance abuse and addiction counselors do?

Substance abuse and addiction counselors are trained, licensed professionals who work with individuals, families and communities to provide treatment to those struggling with substance misuse.

In this role, you can choose to specialize in treating general drug or alcohol abuse, or focus on specific addictive behaviors. As a substance abuse and addiction counselor, you’ll be able to provide hope for many people dealing with these difficulties.

The need for more counselors of this type in the country is high. “We just don’t have enough providers to meet the demand for the number of people who are struggling with addiction,” said Matthew Meier, clinical associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is projected to grow 18% from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. Increased demand for these professionals is expected because of a growth in the number of people, including youths, who have mental health and behavioral disorders. Additionally, there will be a continued need for services to assist the large number of people with addictions, especially those who have opioid use disorder.


The skills you’ll need to succeed in the role

Valuable traits and transferable skills that successful substance abuse and addiction counselors possess include:

  • Active listening: Being able to attentively listen to patients helps you understand their concerns, feelings and experiences, fostering a positive client relationship.
  • Communication: Having clear and effective communication helps you convey information, provide guidance, and navigate difficult conversations with patients and their families.
  • Cultural competence: Understanding diverse cultures, backgrounds, belief systems and the impacts they have, will help you connect with individuals from various walks of life.
  • Empathy: Showing empathy and compassion cultivates a safe environment for your patients to be more vulnerable and honest about their behaviors and progress.
  • Problem-solving: Navigating complex issues and developing strategies to overcome rigorous challenges is one of the most important elements of treating patterns of addiction.
  • Self-awareness: Understanding your own personal biases helps you maintain objectivity and provide non-judgmental support to your clients.

According to Meier, the most important characteristic required to be an effective addiction counselor is the desire to help others.

“Addiction can negatively affect anyone, from all walks of life, whether someone is suffering from the disease of addiction or experiencing the impact of addiction on a loved one,” he noted. “Counselors must be willing to set aside any biases or preconceptions and work to connect with the person sitting across from them. What works for one client might be completely different from what the next client needs.”


What are the differences between an addiction counselor and an addiction psychologist?

The roles of addiction counselors and addiction psychologists both assist with treating addiction, but they differ in terms of their qualifications, training and the scope of their work.

  • An addiction counselor has a bachelor's or master's degree, focuses on counseling techniques and provides face-to-face therapy for patients.
  • An addiction psychologist holds a doctoral degree, has a broader scope of clinical research and can work in various facilities.

“Many of our students have pursued their doctorate after completing our addiction programs,” said Meier.

It’s common for these professionals to collaborate in clinical settings to offer comprehensive care for patients. If you start as an addiction counselor, you can always further your education and experience to become an addiction psychologist in the future.


The education and licensure you’ll need to be a substance abuse and addiction counselor

The first step toward becoming a substance abuse and addiction counselor is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling, substance abuse or a related field. Then a master’s degree, and subsequent supervised experience, is required to become licensed at the independent level which allows you to practice without supervision and have a private practice.

It’s important to note each state's licensure, certification and background requirements may vary. For example, Arizona has two licenses at the master’s level:

  • LASAC – Licensed Associate Substance Abuse Counselor: Requires a master’s degree in a behavioral-health related field (such as the master’s in addiction psychology) and a passing score on an advanced substance abuse licensure exam administered by the IC&RC, NAADAC or NBCC. Counselors at this level cannot practice independently and must be supervised by a LISAC.
  • LISAC – Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor: Requires a master’s degree in a behavioral-health related field, an active LASAC credential, and 1600 hours of supervised work experience that includes 100 hours of clinical supervision.

Please visit ASU’s professional licensure page for the most up-to-date information on requirements for licensure in your state.


Earn an online master’s degree or graduate certificate related to substance abuse and addiction counseling

If you’re ready to pursue a career as a substance abuse and addiction counselor, consider one of ASU Online’s two graduate-level programs in addiction counseling:

This master’s is made up of 33 credit hours of addiction-related courses, a six-credit-hour practicum and a six-credit-hour applied project. You’ll cover the seven core content areas required for licensure in the State of Arizona, as well as the educational content requirements for most states in the U.S. Upon graduation, you could find employment in substance misuse treatment centers, community mental health agencies, integrated health-primary care settings and more.

This addiction studies certificate includes seven core courses that explore evidence-based treatments, comorbidity, psychopharmacology and multicultural counseling. Upon completion, you can apply for an entry-level license or pair with other behavioral health degrees, such as a master's in counseling, psychology or social work to receive dual licensure.

Everything you need to know about ASU Online classes and degree programs

We’ve compiled what you need to know about online classes and degree programs at Arizona State University. Read on to learn all about what to expect from the ASU Online learning experience.


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