Substance Abuse Therapist Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a substance abuse therapist career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a substance abuse therapist is right for you.
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A Substance Abuse Therapist Career: Pros and Cons

A substance abuse therapist works with their clients to overcome their addictions to alcohol and other drugs. Consider the following pros and cons to determine if a career as a substance abuse therapist is right for you.

Pros of a Substance Abuse Therapist Career
High job growth (31% growth in 2012-2022)*
Variety in duties (leading individual and group counseling sessions, educating families, coordinating support services)*
Growing demand for substance abuse rehabilitation services*
Large number of options for places of employment*

Cons of a Substance Abuse Therapist Career
Often involves weekend and evening work hours*
Heavy caseloads are common (insufficient resources to meet demand for services)*
Potential for high stress (difficult clients, intervening in crisis situations)*
May require travel to clients' homes**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Michigan Jobs & Career Portal

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Substance abuse therapists provide counseling to individuals and groups. Their clients are people dealing with addictions to alcohol, illegal drugs or pharmaceutical drugs. These therapists, or counselors, develop treatment plans to help clients work through the recovery process and rebuild relationships, careers and, ultimately, their lives. Also known as addiction counselors, substance abuse therapists may work in conjunction with doctors, social workers or other professionals to implement treatments. Be prepared to work irregular hours, especially if you plan to work in a residential rehab facility. Evening and weekend work schedules are common.

Helping others overcome their addictions and rebuild their lives can be a very positive experience. However, you should know that a high level of stress often accompanies those rewarding feelings due to difficult clients and high caseloads.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse therapists earned a mean wage of about $46,000 annually. The 31% job growth projected in this field from 2012-2022 can be partially attributed to the fact that legal offenders are increasingly being sentenced to treatment for substance abuse, reports the BLS. Employment opportunities should be most plentiful for those working in individual and family services or residential rehabilitation facilities. Other employers include outpatient treatment centers, medical facilities and government agencies.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

The amount of education required to work as a substance abuse therapist varies. A higher level of education is associated with a greater level of responsibility and independence in the workplace. To have your own practice, you'll need a master's degree in the field and 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised work experience, according to the BLS. The majority of therapists are employed in mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities, and the requirements to work in this capacity vary state to state.

While some states may credential counselors using an exam and no set education requirements, it is more common for some level of postsecondary education to be required. An education poll on a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored site, O*NET Online, found that the majority of counselors in this field who volunteered information reported having a bachelor's degree (www.onetonline.org); this may not be representative of the whole field.

Bachelor's degree programs center on substance abuse and counseling theories and typically include an internship. Programs at the master's degree level cover the same areas but go deeper into the concepts and theories related to substance abuse counseling. In addition to completing an internship or practicum, students learn about diagnostic protocols, pharmacology, the physiological effects of substance abuse and the types of mental health disorders that may accompany drug use.

Regardless of the licensure or certification requirements for your state, some other qualities and skills are important for succeeding in this career. These include:

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Compassion and concern for others
  • Patience
  • Ability to manage stress
  • Flexibility
  • Solid clerical skills (documentation of client interactions and treatments is vital)

What Real Employers Look For

Meeting education and credentialing requirements are the primary qualifications employers use to hire substance abuse therapists. Experience and schedule flexibility also tend to be important. Jobs may require travel, so possessing a valid driver's license is not an uncommon requirement. The following real job postings from April 2012 give you an idea of what employers tend to look for when hiring these therapists.

  • An Iowa community organization offering substance abuse services is looking for an outpatient substance abuse counselor. In addition to doing assessments, the counselor must develop treatment plans as well as conduct group and individual sessions. Candidates for the job need a human services degree and must possess state certification as an alcohol and drug counselor within a year of being hired. Work experience counseling legal offenders, adolescents and those with mental health conditions is preferred. The job is a full-time position requiring some traveling and evening work.
  • A Georgia counseling agency seeks a full-time substance abuse counselor to lead individual and group therapy sessions, maintain clinical documentation and research the literature in the field to determine best practices. Providing services to adults, adolescents and children is part of the job. Candidates must be certified addiction counselors. Good computer skills and experience working in community-based programs are also expected.
  • A New Jersey rehabilitation facility needs a primary substance abuse counselor to work at its Pennsylvania transitional living facility. The full-time position involves assessing and counseling individuals who are in the recovery process. Candidates must have a bachelor's degree and possess certification as an alcohol and drug counselor or addictions counselor. A master's degree is preferred. The employer also expects the counselor to have three years of experience working in the field. A valid driver's license is required.

How Can I Stand Out?

Specialize

Licensure or certification is often needed to work in this field, and some states use examinations from the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors' (NAADAC) National Certification Commission. Yet while such certifications may be required, you can further stand out by obtaining credentials in certain specialties. For instance, NAADAC offers certification in nicotine dependence and an adolescent specialist endorsement. These specialty credentials could give you an edge if you're aiming to work in a specific area of substance abuse counseling.

Computer Skills

Good computer and clerical skills may not spring to mind when you think about a career in counseling, but they are vital. Meticulous recordkeeping is essential to track clients' progress and also to meet reporting regulations for your employer. With the push towards electronic records over the last few years, you need to show employers that you have solid keyboarding skills and proficiency in standard office software programs. Healthcare or case management software may be used in this job as well.

Comparable Careers to Consider

Another career option with even faster employment growth is that of a substance abuse social worker. The 2010-2020 BLS estimate for job growth is 31%, primarily for the same reason as the high growth for therapists in this specialty: a rising number of offenders entering rehab facilities. Social workers must be licensed in their state, and education requirements vary. However, substance abuse and mental health social workers need a master's degree due to the clinical nature of their work. The 2011 mean yearly wage for these professionals was about $43,000. Still, this occupation has the potential to be stressful as well.

Finding that specializing in substance abuse isn't for you? You may want to look into becoming a mental health counselor, an occupation with a 36% expected jump in employment growth from 2010-2020. These counselors provide services to clients dealing with a range of emotional or psychological issues, such as relationship problems, depression or low self-esteem. In addition to having their own private practices, mental health counselors work in several settings, including hospitals and outpatient facilities. According to 2011 BLS data, they earned a mean annual income of about $43,000. As in many of the helping professions, keeping your own emotions and stress level in check is important.

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