Addiction & Recovery

How to Become a Substance Abuse Disorder Counselor

How to Become a Substance Abuse Disorder Counselor
Substance abuse social workers help people get their lives back on track as they battle substance abuse challenges, strive to change their behavior, and improve their mental health. Image from Unsplash
Eddie Huffman profile
Eddie Huffman February 24, 2023

If your heart is calling you to help people get treatment for their substance abuse disorders, you may be interested in becoming a substance abuse disorder counselor.

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Carrie Nation smashed saloons with a hatchet in the early 1900s. The Eighteenth Amendment banned alcohol sales in 1919 until its repeal 14 years later. The war on drugs has raged since the 1970s, spawning mass incarceration and violence.

Widespread attempts to control substance abuse have gone on for well over a century, with decidedly mixed results. Meanwhile, substance abuse social workers and other mental health professionals quietly go about the business of helping people with substance use problems. They work with individuals and small groups, helping people acknowledge, face, and overcome their issues.

Those issues affect tens of millions of Americans, a number augmented by the recent opioid epidemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports:

  • 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5 percent from 78,056 deaths the year before
  • 13 percent of people age 12 and over had used illicit drugs in the previous month, according to a 2019 study
  • 1.9 percent of people age 12 and over had used psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes in the previous month

A lot of folks out there need some help. If you’re concerned enough to want to get involved, you may be wondering how to become a substance abuse social worker. This article answers that question and also reviews:

  • What do substance abuse social workers do?
  • Why become a substance abuse social worker?
  • How does someone become a substance abuse social worker?
  • What are the work settings for substance abuse social workers?
  • What are some requirements from different states?

What do substance abuse social workers do?

Substance abuse social workers help people get their lives back on track as they battle substance abuse challenges, strive to change their behavior, and improve their mental health. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists typical duties that include:

  • Evaluating clients’ mental and physical health, addiction, or problematic behavior and assessing their readiness for treatment
  • Assisting clients in developing skills and behaviors necessary to recover from their addiction or modify their behavior
  • Documenting and maintaining records of clients’ progress
  • Teaching clients’ family members about addiction or behavior disorders and helping them develop strategies to support clients in recovery
  • Referring clients to other resources and services, such as job placement services and support groups

“There are numerous benefits to working as a substance abuse counselor,” writes Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Each day brings something different. Likewise, each client provides you with a new experience. You will witness transformative change and you will be a part of helping change lives.”

Here are some of the primary methods substance abuse social workers use to treat addiction, according to the College of Social Work at Florida State University (FSU):

  • Assessment
  • Evaluating achievement
  • Maintenance
  • Relationship building
  • Treatment plans

“You have to have a game face and a demeanor that’s empathetic to the issue from the past but completely focused on the future,” Daniel Hernandez, a Los Angeles social worker, told the Chicago Tribune. “You have to let your client know that you are the person who is going to help them make the move into tomorrow. That’s what I tell my clients–we need to move to tomorrow–and then I tell them how I’m going to help them do it.”

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Why become a substance abuse social worker?

This challenging but rewarding career offers people an opportunity to transform lives. Substance abuse can devastate not only the abuser but also the people in their orbit, including romantic partners, children, parents, friends, and coworkers.

The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California (USC) offers six reasons to become a substance abuse social worker:

  • Substance abuse is on the rise
  • The role is rewarding
  • Work environments vary
  • Professional growth potential
  • Personal autonomy
  • Professional collaboration opportunities

Outcomes vary, but transitions can be dramatic.

“The great feeling is when you see they get their lives back,” says Troy Jackson, a clinical social work/therapist in Philadelphia. “They become good sons, good daughters; they can reunite with family. I’ll see them five, 10 years later and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant; hey, I have a new house, a new job.’ Whatever it is, you know you made an impact on their lives.”

How does someone become a substance abuse social worker?

The qualifications for becoming a substance abuse social worker vary widely. Some jobs require only a high school diploma, according to the BLS; others a master’s degree. But most require, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a subject such as social science, psychology, or public policy and social services.

You’ll need a state license for private practice, a requirement that often includes obtaining a master’s degree and/or passing an exam. We’ll take a closer look below at some of the requirements in different states.

NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals, offers a variety of certifications, listed here. So do the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the American Counseling Association.

Arizona State University (ASU) lists some helpful skills for anyone interested in becoming a substance abuse social worker:

  • Oral comprehension
  • Oral expression
  • Problem sensitivity
  • Deductive reasoning
  • Inductive reasoning
  • Written comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Speech clarity
  • Speech recognition
  • Fluency of ideas

What are the work settings for substance abuse social workers?

Patients need counseling in a variety of settings. You’ll find substance abuse social workers in:

  • Hospitals
  • Mental health centers
  • Prisons and juvenile detention facilities
  • Private offices
  • Probation or parole offices
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Schools

What are some requirements from different states?

Florida

The Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling licenses substance abuse counselors in the Sunshine State. Requirements include:

  • Two years of post-master’s supervised experience
  • At least 1,500 hours of face-to-face psychotherapy with clients
  • Passing the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE)
  • Completing courses in HIV/AIDS and domestic violence

Kentucky

The Kentucky Board of Alcohol and Drug Counselors (ADC) issues licenses at two levels: Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LCADC). CADC requirements include:

  • Bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Training in ethics, HIV, and domestic violence training
  • 6,000 hours of supervised work experience with substance abuse clients
  • Passing an exam

LCADC requirements include:

  • Master’s degree or higher in behavioral science
  • 180 semester hours of substance abuse coursework
  • 2,000 hours of experience
  • Passing an advanced exam

North Carolina

The North Carolina Substance Abuse Professional Practice Board (NCSAPPB) provides counseling credentials. Requirements for becoming a Certified North Carolina Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) include:

  • High school diploma
  • 6,000 hours of supervised practice
  • 270 hours of education and training

The requirements for becoming a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist (LCAS) generally include:

  • Master’s degree
  • 300 hours of supervised practical training
  • 4,000 hours of supervised post-graduate substance abuse counseling experience
  • 180 hours of certified substance abuse counselor training
  • Passing score on a master’s level written exam

Ohio

Licenses in Ohio are issued by the state Chemical Dependency Professionals Board. Ohio offers three levels of license: Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor II (LCDC II), Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor III (LCDC III), and Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor (LICDC).

Requirements for all levels include 2,000 hours of chemical dependency counseling-related work experience and 220 hours of experience in chemical dependency counseling. Additional requirements include:

  • LCDC II: an associate’s degree in a behavioral science, nursing, or a bachelor’s degree in any field
  • LCDC III: Bachelor’s degree in a behavioral science or nursing
  • LCDIC: Master’s degree in a behavioral science or nursing

Pennsylvania

Licenses for substance abuse counselors in Pennsylvania are issued by the Department of State. Requirements include:

  • Master’s or doctoral degree
  • Passing an exam
  • 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for candidates with master’s degrees
  • 2,400 hours of supervised clinical experience for candidates with doctoral degrees

Texas

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission issues substance abuse counseling licenses in the Lone Star State.

Texas has a two-step licensing system: an internship stage, Counselor Intern (CI), followed by a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC) stage. Requirements at the CI stage include:

  • 270 hours of Chemical Dependency training/education, with at least 135 hours specific to substance abuse and treatment
  • 300-hour practicum covering such topics as screening, counseling, case management, and crisis intervention

LCDC requirements include all of the above, as well as:

  • Associate’s degree in Chemical Dependency Counseling or higher from a regionally accredited university
  • 4,000 hours of supervised work experience
  • Passing written and oral exams

Wisconsin

Licenses to become a substance abuse counselor in Wisconsin come courtesy of the Department of Safety and Professional Services. Requirements include:

  • 360 hours of specialized education in substance use disorder
  • Successful completion of exams
  • 3,000 hours of work experience
  • 1,000 hours in substance use disorder counseling, with at least 500 hours in one-on-one individual counseling

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Eddie Huffman is the author of John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a forthcoming biography of Doc Watson. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications.

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.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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