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Substance Abuse Counselor

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(6.7 out of 10)

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Unemployment Rate

4.8 percent

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Those struggling with an addiction like alcoholism or burdened by an eating disorder or behavioral problem turn to substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors for treatment and support. They can be the guiding force for helping patients integrate back into areas of their lives where their behavior has left a destructive trail, including work and personal relationships. Part of that process involves consulting with the families of patients about what treatment options are best suited for remedying the condition of their loved one. But substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors don’t only offer their expertise to patients. Counselors often run outreach programs to warn others about the dangers of addiction and encourage a healthy lifestyle. Hearing about the devastating effect addiction has had on a person’s life can be an emotional experience every day, so those who wish to enter this field should have a temperament that mixes empathy with patience.

With a projected 31 percent employment growth rate, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor jobs are growing at a faster clip than many other occupations. A key reason for the growth is that the Affordable Care Act mandates that insurance providers cover treatment for mental health issues. Now that Americans are required to have insurance and can afford these services, experts predict there will be an influx in the number of people seeking mental health counseling. Another factor is a shift in how the justice system is dealing with drug offenders. Rather than jail time, many offenders are receiving treatment-oriented sentences. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that over the coming decade, 28,200 new counselor positions will need to be filled to meet the demand.


According to the BLS, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors earned a median salary of $38,520, or approximately $18.52 per hour in 2012. The best-paid earned about $60,000, while the lowest-paid earned less than $25,140. Areas of the industry that pay well include colleges, universities, professional schools, civic and social organizations and nursing care facilities. According to the BLS, Michigan is home to two of the top three highest-paying metropolitan areas for the occupation: Lansing and Flint.

Salary Range

75th Percentile $48,330
Median $38,520
25th Percentile $30,850


There isn’t a firm academic threshold one has to meet to enter the occupation, although a majority of states require a form of certification. But as Stephen Gumbley, director of the New England Addiction Technology Transfer Center, notes, the incorporation of behavioral health into the field is upping the ante for education. “The scope of the work has widened,” he says, explaining that counselors over the past 15 years not only have knowledge about substance disorders but also their strong correlation to mental disorders. That crossover has led many entering the field to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees rather than rely squarely on work experience. Still, even with the uptick of counselors with degrees, individuals working as recovery support specialists often rely on real-world experience.

Reviews & Advice

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors working for a private practice must obtain a license. While license requirements vary by state, counselors must have a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of experience in the field. Gumbley notes that there isn’t a formal organization within the industry that assists in the job search. However, “internships are most closely associated with academic training,” he says, and could make securing a position easier. For those looking to gain experience without having to jump through academic hoops, Gumbley suggests working in a residential program. While counselors in such facilities need clinical knowledge, other staff, such as house and case managers, do not.

Job Satisfaction

Upward Mobility poor Below Average
Stress Level poor Above Average
Flexibility good Above Average
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Last updated by Kimberly Castro.

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