Becoming a Drug Therapist: Job Description & Salary Information

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A drug therapist's median annual salary is around $39,000, but is it worth the extensive training requirements? Get the truth about job duties and career prospects before deciding if this is the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Drug Therapist Career

Drug therapists, also known as substance abuse counselors, help people who misuse or are addicted to prescription or illegal drugs. There are a number of pros and cons to working as a drug therapist, so it's good to examine them before deciding this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Career as a Drug Therapist
Meaningful work that can help people lead healthy, drug-free lives*
The opportunity to help keep people out of jail*
Faster than average growth in employment (31% increase projected from 2012-2022 for all substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors)*
The opportunity to acquire both specialized training and transferable skills*

Cons of a Career as a Drug Therapist
High degree of emotional and physical energy required for the job*
Possibility of working with criminal offenders*
Dealing with the problems of others can lead to 'burnout' and stress**
Training requirements vary from state to state*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Center for Biotechnology Information

Career Information

Substance abuse counselors help people with drug problems address and overcome their dependencies and addictions. Under a counselor's care, substance abusers and addicts learn to identify the issues that are contributing to their drug problems, establish healthy behaviors and develop coping strategies. Counselors use client history, research, clinical experience and input from other health professionals to develop treatment plans that are administered either individually or in group settings. Counseling can be provided on a daily, weekly, drop-in or crisis basis. In addition to treating a client directly, counselors sometimes work with family members who have been affected by a relative's substance abuse. In an effort to educate the public and prevent addiction before it starts, some counselors may also conduct community outreach programs. Substance abuse counselors can be employed by either private or government agencies.

Job Growth and Salary Information

With mental health counseling services increasingly covered by health insurance policies, more people are seeking treatment, and more drug offenders are being sent to rehabilitation instead of jail. As a result, the number of jobs for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was projected to grow by 31% from 2012-2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As of May 2014, the median annual salary for workers in this field was around $39,000, as reported by the BLS.

What Are the Requirements?

The BLS reports that licensing or regulation of substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors usually falls under the jurisdiction of a state agency or board that is different from the one used to oversee other counselors. Educational requirements vary from state to state, and it's possible to enter this field without a college degree. A high school diploma or GED and classes in substance abuse from an approved program are the minimum educational requirements in states like California and New York. Coursework can include the study of pharmacology, prevention, intervention, treatment options, law, ethics and psychology.

Others states, such as Montana, require an associate's or bachelor's degree in alcohol or drug studies, chemical dependency, psychology, sociology, social work or a related major from an accredited college or university. To be certified, you also need to have worked a certain number of supervised hours in a substance abuse program and pass a state examination. Individual states may also require that you complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year to maintain your certification. Qualified substance abuse counselors should be:

  • Service-oriented individuals with a sincere desire to help others
  • Knowledgeable in the principles, methods and procedures for diagnosing and treating people with chemical dependencies
  • Knowledgeable about human behavior and differences
  • Critical thinkers
  • Socially perceptive and active listeners

Real Substance Abuse Counselor Jobs from Real Employers

Though postsecondary education isn't always legally required for substance abuse counseling positions, employers often seek job candidates who have a degree, in some cases on the graduate level. They also tend to look for counselors with at least a year of experience who are licensed or certified or eligible to be so. Following are some qualities that actual employers were looking for in prospective substance abuse counselors, taken from job postings from March 2012:

  • A well-known substance abuse program in Brooklyn, NY, advertised for counselors and a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) with a minimum of one year and five years of counseling experience, respectively. Candidates needed excellent oral and written communication skills and the ability to perform well under clinical and administrative pressure.
  • A nonprofit counseling corporation in Illinois was looking for a substance abuse counselor to evaluate clients and conduct individual, family and group counseling sessions. The posting stated that candidates needed to be certified and licensed, hold a bachelor's or master's degree and have at least one year of counseling experience.
  • An inpatient adolescent facility in Montana offered an opportunity for a licensed addiction counselor to conduct evaluations and provide individual, family and group treatments. The posting stated that a candidate's education and experience should be equivalent to that of a bachelor's or master's degree in behavioral science with specific coursework and training in addiction, mental health disorders and therapeutic treatment of adolescents and families.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

High school students who want to go straight into a counseling training program when they graduate could benefit from taking classes in English composition, communication, public speaking, psychology, sociology and statistics. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has a Model Scope of Practice and Career Ladder for Substance Use Disorder Counselors. This publication provides information about the education, licensing, training, advanced coursework and supervised work experience you will need to work as an entry-level technician, associate counselor, counselor or supervisor in the field of substance use disorders (www.samhsa.gov).

Gain Voluntary Certification

Counselors who have earned a graduate degree in a relevant field may want to pursue a voluntary credential in addition to state-level licensure or certification. The National Certification Commission, an independent body of the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), offers National Certified Addiction Counselor and Master Addiction Counselor designations (www.naadac.org). In addition to a master's degree, certification requirements include substantial counseling experience and a passing score on an exam.

Other Careers to Consider

If substance abuse counseling isn't quite right for you, but you still want to work in a field where you can help improve the lives of others, you might consider one of the following careers.

Social and Human Services Assistants

Social and human services assistants help people improve their quality of life by evaluating their clients' needs, determining their eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits and helping them obtain these services. Educational requirements can include certificates or associate's, bachelor's or master's degrees in behavioral sciences, counseling, gerontology, human services, rehabilitation or social work. According to the BLS, employment of social and human services assistants was expected to increase by 28% from 2010-2020. The median annual salary for these professionals was around $29,000 as of May 2011, as reported by the BLS.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

Mental health and substance abuse social workers evaluate and treat people with mental illness or substance abuse issues through individual and group therapy, crisis intervention and social rehabilitation. A bachelor's degree in social work may open the door to some entry-level positions, while a master's degree in the same field of study may be required for more advanced or supervisory work. According to the BLS, employment of social workers could increase by approximately 25% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the approximate median annual salary for these specialized social workers was $39,000, as reported by the BLS.

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists who work either in private practice or for counseling, drug rehabilitation or mental health centers are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental illness. While a bachelor's degree will allow you to assist psychologists or other professionals at these centers, a doctoral degree in psychology is typically required to legally work in private practice. The BLS projected a faster-than-average increase in jobs for clinical, counseling and school psychologists between 2010 and 2020. As of May 2011, clinical, counseling and school psychologists earned a median annual salary of around $68,000, according to the BLS.

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Featured Schools

George Mason University

  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

What is your highest level of education?

Kaplan University

  • Master: Psychology/Addictions
  • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
  • BS in Psychology in Addictions
  • Bachelor: Health and Wellness

Which subject are you interested in?

American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

What is your highest level of education?

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Addications
  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration

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Argosy University

  • Clinical Psychology (PsyD)
  • Clinical Psychology (MA)
  • Addiction Studies (C)

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Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management

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Baker College Online

  • Healthcare Management - MBA (Master's)

What is your highest level of education?

Keiser University

  • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant

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