Similar Titles

Addictions Counselor, Case Manager, Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Chemical Dependency Counselor, Chemical Dependency Professional, Clinical Counselor, Counselor, Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist, Prevention Specialist, Substance Abuse Counselor, Mental Health Therapist

Job Description

The problem of alcohol and drug addiction hurts families and communities around the world. In the United States, substance abuse disorder impacts over 20 million people, of which only about ~10% ever receive treatment. Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the alarming statistic that “more than 109,000 people died of a drug overdose” from March 2021-2022.  

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors are on the frontlines of the battle against these pervasive problems. Also known as addiction counselors, these compassionate workers engage directly with people suffering from harmful, often devastating addictions. Their role is to teach clients ways to break addiction cycles and handle problems without self-medicating. Counselors also offer help during the journey to recovery, empowering people to rebuild their lives and repair damaged relationships. 

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors work with groups as well as individuals. In many cases, they act as part of a larger team of healthcare and mental health professionals treating patients. Many focus efforts on specific target groups such as teens or persons with disabilities. The job can be challenging at times, requiring immense patience and perseverance—but the reward comes from transforming people’s lives for the better!

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Working directly with clients and seeing the impact of one’s efforts 
  • Serving as part of a larger healthcare team to improve patient outcomes
  • Potentially preventing people from substance overdose, self-harm
  • Mitigating risks of homelessness
  • Potentially saving others from the harmful action of impaired individuals
2021 Employment
2031 Projected Employment
Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors may work full- or part-time, with night, weekend, or holiday shifts necessary in some settings. 

Typical Duties

  • Review client/patient records and reports to gain an understanding of their backgrounds, setbacks, and progress to-date
  • Schedule one-on-one or group counseling sessions
  • Analyze the severity of a client’s drug dependency 
  • Develop and adjust customized treatment plans 
  • Gather biological samples for drug testing
  • Keep track of the client's drug or alcohol abuse patterns 
  • Collaborate with healthcare team members, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, as needed
  • Discuss client situations with parole officers or others in the justice system, as required
  • Conduct interventions during crisis situations
  • Review progress and goal attainment status
  • Attend training sessions to increase knowledge and skills related to the field
  • Conduct interviews with affected family members, go over services and program options, and educate them on ways to support patients as best as they can

Additional Responsibilities

  • Check-in with discharged patients for follow-up care 
  • Train new counselors and interns
  • Make referrals for other social services or treatment options, as needed
  • Create public education materials and programs
  • Attend meetings and give presentations
  • Stay up-to-date on relevant industry policy and funding changes
  • Maintain and safeguard physical and electronic records
Skills Needed on the Job

Soft Skills

  • Compassion
  • Composure
  • Cooperation
  • Dependability
  • Detail-oriented
  • Diligence
  • Innovative thinking
  • Integrity 
  • Listening skills
  • Methodical 
  • Motivation
  • Negotiation skills
  • Observant
  • Patient
  • Persistent
  • Persuasive 
  • Relationship-building
  • Safety conscious 
  • Sound judgment 
  • Teaching skills
  • Time management 

Technical Skills

Different Types of Organizations
  • Governmental agencies
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Mental health and substance abuse recovery centers
Expectations and Sacrifices

Persons suffering from addictions can be challenging to work with. Their behavior may be unpredictable, and relapses are common. Often, they struggle with mental health problems, as well, creating another layer of complexities. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors must apply all their knowledge and skills to find workable treatment and recovery paths for their clients and patients, some of whom are not always willing participants (such as those who are involuntarily committed to a rehab program). 

The job can be an emotional rollercoaster leading to stress and frustration at times. Many counselors experience burnout due to an overload of cases and/or a scarcity of resources. There’s a lot riding on the effectiveness of their treatment plans and the pressure can take a toll when things don’t work out. However, it’s important to expect and plan for setbacks and to keep pushing forward. When counselors stay motivated and persistent, they can often help clients turn their lives around! 

Current Trends

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects up to 22% job growth for the field, compared to an average of just 5% for all occupations. One reason for the job boost? Several states are viewing counseling services as a more humane alternative to jail time for persons charged with drug-related activities. There’s also a growing movement by the military to help veterans in need of professional mental health and substance abuse counseling services. 

Another reason is that alcohol and drug use surged during the Covid pandemic, creating a desperate need for more trained Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors to enter the workforce. Of particular concern is the frightening trend of cartels targeting younger customers with “rainbow fentanyl” which is “50 times more potent than heroin” and can be fatal in doses “equal to 10-15 grains of table salt.”

What kinds of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were younger…

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors tend to be compassionate people who may have always tried to help others. The field attracts people from all walks of life, but it’s not uncommon for people who were affected by substance abuse—either from their own use or that of a loved one—to take up this profession. Data USA notes that currently nearly 3/4th of workers in this field are women, with the most common college majors being psychology, education, and public admin/social services.  

Education and Training Needed

Education Needed

Things to look for in an University
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors should decide upon their major and pin down their long-term career goals as early as possible. That will help determine the most suitable attributes for their college program 
  • General college considerations include tuition costs (in-state/out-of-state rates), discounts, scholarships, and course delivery options (on-campus, online, or hybrid program)
  • Ideally, you’ll want a program that offers hands-on work experience you can count towards licensure
Things to do in High School and College
  • High school students can prepare by taking classes in health, anthropology, ethnic studies, gender studies, sociology, psychology, and child development, if offered
  • Participate in school activities where you can hone your soft skills such as speaking, active listening, time management, negotiation, and conflict resolution
  • Decide which college degree major is right for your goals and interests
  • Talk to program staff about internship opportunities to gain real-world experience
  • Think about whether you want to do an online, in-person, or hybrid degree, but keep in mind you may need several hours of in-person field experiences 
  • Volunteer or apply for part-time social work jobs in your community. Read or watch the news to gain an understanding of the most pervasive problems in your area
  • Keep a list of contacts (including phone numbers or emails) who might serve as future job references 
  • Check out articles and video tutorials about substance abuse and behavioral disorder issues
  • Think about the area you might want to specialize in, such as working with youth or military veterans
Typical Roadmap
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor Roadmap
How to Land your 1st job
  • Ask you school’s faculty or career center for tips about connecting with employers
  • Let your professional network know that you are looking for work
  • Review job portals such as Indeed and Glassdoor
  • Look at the career pages of local social work agencies or drug treatment facilities 
  • Keep your social media clean and professional, in case job recruiters take a peek
  • Review Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor resume templates
  • Read counselors interview questions, learn your career-related terminology, and practice your answers
  • Consider moving to a state where there are more employment opportunities, but make sure you are licensed to work there
  • Be familiar with the most common problems in your area, and be ready to speak about those during interviews
  • Remember to get permission from potential references before giving out their contact info
  • Practice doing a few mock interviews with friends or relatives 
  • Dress professionally for interviews
How to Climb the Ladder
  • Talk with your supervisor and let them know your career goals. Ask for their advice on how to move up
  • Earn a certification in a hard-to-fill specialty area
  • Maintain your composure at all times, and treat all clients/patients with respect
  • Stay committed to long-term client/patient goals, and stick with them through the tough times
  • Don’t be stubborn if a problem is beyond your control. Know when to make necessary referrals
  • Stay up-to-date on relevant counseling techniques
  • Know, comply with, and enforce all applicable federal, state, local, and organizational policies
  • Synergize your efforts with other members of the client/patient’s treatment team
  • Get involved with your community, conduct outreach activities, and build your reputation as a leader who cares!
  • Engage regularly with professional organizations. Attend events, give speeches, and take on committee roles
Plan B

Though their work is often rewarding, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors frequently can experience stress and frustration for various reasons. For some, the ups and downs of the job can be tough to manage. If you’re interested in related career fields to explore, consider the following options:

  • Healthcare Social Workers
  • Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers
  • Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
  • Psychologists
  • Registered Nurses
  • School and Career Counselors
  • Social Workers


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