Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors advise people who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, or other behavioral problems. They provide treatment and support to help the client recover from addiction or modify problem behaviors.

Duties

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors typically do the following:

  • Assess and evaluate clients’ mental and physical health, addiction or problem behavior, and readiness to treatment
  • Help clients develop treatment goals and plans
  • Review and recommend treatment options with clients and their families
  • Help clients develop skills and behaviors necessary to recover from their addiction or modify their behavior
  • Work with clients to identify behaviors or situations that interfere with their recovery
  • Teach families about addiction or behavior disorders and help them develop strategies to cope with those problems
  • Refer clients to other resources and services, such as job placement services and support groups
  • Conduct outreach programs to help people identify the signs of addiction and other destructive behavior, as well as steps to take to avoid such behavior

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, also called addiction counselors, work with clients individually and in group sessions. Many incorporate the principles of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to guide their practice. They teach clients how to cope with stress and life’s problems in ways that help them recover. Furthermore, they help clients rebuild professional relationships and, if necessary, reestablish their career. They also help clients improve their personal relationships and find ways to discuss their addiction or other problem with family and friends.

Some addiction counselors work in facilities that employ many types of healthcare and mental health professionals. Addiction counselors may work with psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, and registered nurses to develop treatment plans and coordinate care for patients.

Some counselors work with clients who have been ordered by a judge to receive treatment for addiction. Others work with specific populations, such as teenagers, veterans, or people with disabilities. Some specialize in crisis intervention; these counselors step in when someone is endangering his or her own life or the lives of others. Other counselors specialize in noncrisis interventions, which encourage a person with addictions or other issues to get help. Noncrisis interventions often are performed at the request of friends and family.

Some substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in private practice, where they work alone or with a group of counselors or other professionals. These counselors manage their practice as a business. This includes working with clients and insurance companies to receive payment for their services. In addition, they market their practice to bring in new clients.

Work Environment: 

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors held about 89,600 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in 2012 were as follows: 

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers 22%
Nursing and residential care facilities 22
Individual and family services 13
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 11
Hospitals; state, local, and private 10

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in a wide variety of settings, including mental health centers, prisons, probation or parole agencies, and juvenile detention facilities. They also work in halfway houses, detox centers, or in employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs are mental health programs provided by some employers to help employees deal with personal problems.

Some addiction counselors work in residential treatment centers, where clients live in the facility for a fixed period of time. Others work with clients in outpatient treatment centers. Some counselors work in private practice, where they may work alone or with a group of counselors or other professionals.

Although rewarding, the work of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is often stressful. Many counselors have to deal with large workloads. They do not always have enough resources to meet the demand for their services. Also, they may have to intervene in crisis situations or work with agitated clients, which can be tense.

Work Schedules

Most substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work full time. In some settings, such as inpatient facilities, they may need to work evenings, nights, or weekends.

Education and Training: 

Educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a master’s degree, depending on the setting, type of work, state regulations, and level of responsibility.

Education

Educational requirements range from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree. Workers with more education are able to provide more services to their clients, such as private one-on-one counseling sessions, and they require less supervision than those with less education. Those interested should research their state’s educational requirements.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in private practice must be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state, but all states require a master’s degree and between 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete continuing education every year. Contact information for your state's regulating board can be found through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

The licensure or certification criteria for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors outside of private practice vary from state to state. For example, not all states require a specific degree, but many require applicants to pass an exam. Contact information for your state’s licensing board can found through the Addiction Technology Transfer Center.

Training

Workers with less education, such as a high school diploma, may be required to go through a period of on-the-job training. Training prepares counselors how to respond to a crisis situation and interact with people with addictions.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Counselors often work with people who are dealing with stressful and difficult situations, so they must be compassionate and empathize with their clients.

Interpersonal skills. Counselors must be able to work with different types of people. They spend most of their time working directly with clients or other professionals and must be able to develop and nurture good relationships.

Listening skills. Good listening skills are essential for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. They need to give their full attention to a client to be able to understand that client’s problems and values.

Patience. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors must be able to remain calm when working with all types of clients, including those who may be distressed or angry.

Speaking skills. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors need to be able to communicate with clients effectively. They must express ideas and information in a way that their clients easily understand.

Pay: 

The median annual wage for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was $38,520 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,140 and the top 10 percent earned more than $60,000.

Most substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work full time. In some settings, such as inpatient facilities, they may need to work evenings, nights, or weekends.

Job Outlook: 

Employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is projected to grow 31 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Growth is expected as addiction and mental health counseling services are increasingly covered by insurance policies.

Federal legislation mandating individual health coverage may increase the number of health insurance customers. In addition, the law requires insurance plans to cover treatment for mental health issues in the same way as other chronic diseases. These factors will open up prevention and treatment services to more people who were previously uninsured, did not have these services covered, or found treatment to be cost-prohibitive. Mental health centers and other treatment and counseling facilities will need to hire more mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists in order to meet this increased demand.

Demand for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors may also increase as states seek treatment and counseling services for drug offenders rather than jail time.

In recent years, the criminal justice system has recognized that drug and other substance abuse addicts are less likely to offend again if they get treatment for their addiction. As a result, sentences often require drug offenders to attend treatment and counseling programs. In addition, these programs are also typically believed to be more cost effective than incarceration and may be increasingly used by states to deal with both budget cuts and overcrowded prisons.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be good for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, particularly for those with specialized training or education. Employers often have difficulty recruiting workers with the proper educational requirements and experience in working with addiction. In addition, many workers leave the field after a few years and need to be replaced. As result, those interested in entering this field should find favorable prospects.

For More Information: 

For more information about addiction counselors, visit

Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network

For more information about counseling and counseling specialties, visit

American Counseling Association

For contact information for State regulating boards, visit

National Board for Certified Counselors

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.

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