How to Become a Substance Abuse Disorder Therapist

How to Become a Substance Abuse Disorder Therapist
Nobody should go through recovery alone, and thanks to trained substance abuse disorder therapists, nobody has to. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella January 15, 2020

Substance abuse therapists use methods like cognitive behavior therapy, psychotherapy, and dialectical behavior therapy to help patients overcome all kinds of substance and personal issues.

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The conventional wisdom about recovering from a substance abuse disorder (sometimes called “addiction,” although professionals favor the former term because its connotations are less portentous) is that you can’t do it alone. As a substance abuse disorder therapist (“addiction therapist” to the un-PC), you can help people in a way that is both direct and confidential.

Good substance abuse disorder therapists are understanding and compassionate. They help patients through a variety of dependencies, including those related to:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Gambling
  • Nicotine

Substance abuse disorder therapists employ a wide variety of techniques accrued through years of high-level training and experience. Many have personal experience with substance abuse disorder—either their own or through a loved one.

Does this helping profession appeal to you? Then read on to learn how to become a substance abuse disorder therapist. In this article, we will cover:

  • What is a substance abuse disorder therapist?
  • Substance abuse disorder psychologists career path
  • Similar careers to substance abuse disorder psychology
  • Substance abuse disorder counselor career path
  • Substance abuse disorder social worker career path

What is a substance abuse disorder therapist

Therapists are certified professionals who help patients by employing counseling techniques such as psychotherapy.

The term therapist can be used to describe numerous distinct jobs—not just a PhD-holding psychologist who you talk to while lying on a leather couch. Counselors and social workers are also considered therapists. Even psychiatrists—medical doctors who can prescribe medication—sometimes practice therapy. The main difference is that psychologists generally work with a patient on long-term recovery, while counselors and social workers focus on a more immediate problem.

Substance abuse disorder therapists use numerous theraputic methods to help their patients. Some include:

A substance abuse disorder therapist’s remediations vary according to patients’ needs. For some, working to join a 12-step program might be the best fit. For others, treating underlying mental health issues could be most effective, whether through therapy or medication, or both.

What is the job outlook for substance abuse disorder therapists?

Substance abuse disorder therapists have a good-to-great job outlook, depending on their type of practice. Psychologists in private practice earn an average of nearly $98,000 annually. This number can increase or decrease based on location, sub-specialization, and even advertising ability. Self-employed therapists can set their own hours and be more selective about clients. However, starting a business can be risky and often takes a few years to get going.

According to the BLS, psychologists in aggregate—including those employed by hospitals, clinics, schools, businesses, and government—can expect to earn an average of about $80,000 per year. The field is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the growth rate of the job market as a whole. The BLS does not report data specifically for substance abuse disorder psychologists.

Places in which substance abuse disorder psychologists—and other substance abuse disorder therapists—might work include:

  • Outpatient programs
  • Rehab clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Family services programs
  • Detention centers
  • Schools
  • State and local government facilities

Substance abuse counselors earn a median income of $44,630 per year. The field is expected to grow 22 percent from 2018 to 2028. Substance abuse social workers earn a median income of $49,630 annually.



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Substance abuse disorder psychologist career path

Becoming a substance abuse disorder psychologist generally starts with a bachelor’s
degree in psychology. It ends with a PhD in either counseling or clinical psychology, depending on the type of patient you want to work with. In between, you will accrue work experience, internships, and potentially a master’s degree.

When applying to a graduate school, make sure to determine whether the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). You will, of course, also want to look into tuition, relocation requirements, and other fun, life-changing stuff like that.

Don’t forget accreditation, though. It’s important. The APA points out that many states require a degree from an accredited PhD program to qualify for licensure. Well-regarded schools with accredited programs include:

Do not expect to pursue this degree online; the APA does not currently accredit online programs. The best you can hope for is a hybrid program that allows you to take some courses online.

Certain schools, such as Loyola University Chicago, require a master’s degree in counseling—or a related field—in order to apply. Others, such as Fordham, let students with a year’s worth of master’s-level education and work experience apply. That may sound like a lot of effort to circumvent earning a master’s until you realize it generally takes at least two years (full-time), and a substantial pile of money, to complete one.

Regardless of whether you need a master’s degree, nearly every program requires Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. The test is basically the SAT for grad school.

After graduating from a program, you should be able to sit for the state licensure exam in the state where your school is located. Your program will almost certainly prepare you for the specific demands of that exam.

It generally takes between five and seven years to graduate from a PhD program. Combined with a four-year undergraduate degree and potentially a two-to-three-year master’s degree, it could mean spending over a decade to become a therapist. Know as you go in that you’re making a big commitment when you start down this path.

Licensure requirement for becoming a substance abuse disorder psychologist

In order to become a substance abuse disorder therapist, you must first earn your license as a psychologist. Every state has different requirements, but in general, that means:

How do you specialize in substance abuse disorder psychology?

Deciding to specialize in substance abuse disorder therapy may be not only a result of your interests, but also your circumstances and opportunities. A few determining factors include:

  • Location
  • Internship opportunities
  • Finances

For instance, some people may start their careers looking to get a specialized degree in marriage and family therapy, until an internship at a substance abuse counseling center inspires them to change tracks. Others might live in an area without many therapists, or mental health counselors, and decide to focus on more general practice. Still, others might get a great job opportunity that requires them to specialize.

Substance abuse disorder psychologist standards

If you know you want to practice substance abuse disorder therapy, you should work this practice into your internship or postdoc work. Substance abuse disorder psychology is considered a proficiency by the American Psychological Association. A proficiency is different than a specialty, such as school psychology, because it does not require a specialized degree to practice.

This does not mean becoming a substance abuse disorder therapist has no standards—you cannot pull a Lucy from Peanuts and just start charging people five cents to provide advice. The Society of Addiction Psychology officially recognizes psychologists who have earned a Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) certification as proficient in addiction psychology.

According to the Association for Addiction Professionals, which provides the MAC, requirements for psychologists include:

  • Basic professional licensure
  • Training and education in Substance Use Disorders/Addiction (at least 500 hours)
  • Either three full-time years or 6,000 hours of supervised experience as a substance use disorders/addiction counselor
  • At least six hours of ethics and HIV/other pathogens training
  • Passing either the MAC exam or a qualifying “Advanced Level” Substance Use Disorders (SUD) exam.

Similar careers to substance abuse disorder psychology

Substance abuse disorder therapists are just one group of professionals that treat clients with substance abuse issues. Some others include:

Your career does not need to revolve exclusively around substance abuse disorder to be of service. With that said, two other job titles that specifically focus on helping those with dependency issues are:

Substance abuse disorder counselor career path

These professionals have perhaps the most crossover with substance abuse disorder therapists. However, psychologists focus more on the overall mental health of the person seeking treatment, while counselors focus more on substance abuse disorder treatment itself.

Substance abuse counselors might:

  • Lead groups
  • Help patients join a 12-step program
  • Educate people about cravings
  • Assist clients with life problems
  • Monitor client progress and report to appropriate authorities
  • Find aftercare programs for clients
  • Provide support to family members

Counselors generally hold a master’s degree in social work (with some exceptions) and make an average annual salary of about $41,600.

Substance abuse disorder counselors can also earn specialty credentials. The Association for Addiction Professionals, which provides the MAC, also offers these certifications:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II)
  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor (NCAAC)
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS)

Earning one or more might be helpful for other careers.

Substance abuse disorder social worker career path

Substance abuse social workers can find themselves in charge of numerous cases. They work to develop and evaluate treatment options for their clients. Social workers who want to become substance abuse disorder specialists will need to earn an a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, and become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) . These professionals “are trained to perform psychotherapy, with a particular emphasis on connecting people with the community and support services available there,” according to the APA.

Social workers specialize at the MSW level by choosing a specialization and completing course and fieldwork.

Licensed social workers can be found in:

  • Outpatient centers
  • Inpatient substance abuse facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Private practice

Experienced social workers with a Master of Social Work (MSW) earn an average of just under $50,000 annually, with less experienced MSWs making less, and those with a private practice making substantially more.

No matter what kind of substance abuse disorder therapy you decide to practice, be it as a psychologist or social worker, you will have the chance to work directly with others to improve their lives. Nobody should go through recovery alone, and thanks to trained substance abuse disorder therapists, nobody has to.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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