How to Become an Addiction Counselor

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An addiction counselor leads a group therapy meeting.

According to a 2020 report from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 31.9 million Americans aged 12 years and older are current illegal drug users (used within the last 30 days), and 53 million people 12 and older — nearly 1 in 5 individuals — have used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs within the past year. The report also states that roughly 700,000 individuals have died from drug overdoses since 2000. These statistics reinforce the fact that substance abuse is a critical issue that must be addressed.

Substance abuse is classified as chemical addiction. A second classification, behavioral addiction, refers to persistent, repetitive behaviors that interfere with an individual’s control, responsibilities or interest in other activities. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes gambling and internet gaming as behaviors that can become addictive. However, many health care providers also consider additional behaviors as potentially addictive, including eating, sex and work.

The road to recovery from addiction can be difficult. It often requires guidance and support, which is why addiction counselors can play such a vital role in helping people cope with addiction concerns and live happier, healthier lives. These professionals use their analytical and interpersonal skills to guide people toward recovery on their own terms and timeline.

Individuals interested in how to become an addiction counselor can benefit from understanding the education, training and experience requirements for the role. With the foundation offered by a Master of Arts in Counseling program, addiction counselors can help people navigating addiction make behavioral changes and have a real impact on individuals, families and communities.

The Role of an Addiction Counselor

Addiction counselors evaluate their patients to explore the root causes of their addictions and help them identify the feelings surrounding these causes and the triggers that facilitate their addictive behaviors. They then assist these patients in developing coping skills that will allow them to work through their feelings in a healthy manner and avoid triggers. They also help people with addiction develop long-term strategies to avoid problematic behaviors.

Addiction counselors deploy different types of therapeutic strategies in their treatment, based on the individual patient’s needs. Some strategies include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Examines the correlation between an individual’s thoughts and behaviors to identify the triggers behind addictive behavior
  • Biofeedback: Studies brain activity related to an individual’s vital signs to help people manipulate their brain function and gain better control over their physiological processes
  • Meditation: Uses deep relaxation techniques to control stress responses to triggers that may induce addictive behaviors

Addiction counseling can take place in either of two environments. Inpatient rehab means patients stay in residential facilities for a fixed amount of time, usually 28 days to six months. Outpatient rehab means patients live in their own homes but attend treatment sessions at a facility during the day. Some counselors specialize in treating individuals in a specific population, such as veterans, people with disabilities or individuals with court-ordered treatment.

Addiction counselors may work one on one with individuals, couples or families, or in groups. Couples and family therapy involve helping reestablish connections damaged in the course of a patient’s addiction, such as disruptions in the family dynamic or in the patient’s professional life. In group therapy, counselors meet with multiple patients with common concerns to help them gain new insights by sharing and exchanging stories with others.

Steps to Become an Addiction Counselor

Counselors can play a critical role in helping a person break away from the bonds of addiction. Because of its specialized nature, becoming an addiction counselor requires specific steps.

Earn a Degree

Most addiction counselor roles typically require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. However, earning an advanced degree such as a Master of Arts in Counseling enables counselors to offer a wider range of services to their clients, including one-on-one counseling in private practice. Earning a master’s can also allow addiction counselors to conduct their services with less supervision, although they still typically work with other therapy, health care or social work professionals to build a comprehensive treatment strategy.

Become Licensed

Addiction counselors who intend to operate in private practice must be licensed by the state in which they practice. While the specific requirements vary by state, all states require private practice counselors to hold a master’s degree and accumulate 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Additionally, they must pass a state-specific exam and complete continuing education requirements on an annual basis. Precise state requirements can be found at the National Board for Certified Counselors site.

Addiction counselors not in private practice have different licensure requirements. While they may not need an advanced degree, they may still be required to complete a state-specific exam.

Gain Experience

Experience in a supervised setting is an important part of becoming an addiction counselor. Supervised clinical hours often begin with an internship or practicum as part of an undergraduate or graduate program. Individuals can also work toward earning hours in any of a wide range of field settings, such as a substance abuse facility, hospital or prison, or through a government agency.

Key Skills to Be an Effective Addiction Counselor

Because of the intimate nature of addiction issues, the most successful addiction counselors have strong interpersonal skills. The ability to professionally relate and interact with an individual dealing with addiction in a way that exudes compassion and empathy is essential to building trust within the treatment dynamic. This trust can enable the individual to open up about the root causes of their addiction more readily, which can facilitate developing effective treatment strategies.

Building this level of trust takes time, which means addiction counselors must have a high degree of patience. At the outset of the treatment, a patient may be distressed, angry or even hostile. Trying to rush past these emotions can cause a person to lean on them more intensely, making it more difficult to reach the issues’ roots.

Listening and speaking skills are also key to developing trust with patients. By giving a patient their full, undivided attention, not only can an addiction counselor come to fully understand what may have caused the addiction, but they can also pick up on the patient’s nuanced values or beliefs that may impact a specific type of treatment strategy. Likewise, being able to communicate these strategies and other key information clearly and plainly can help the patient understand the exact process of the treatment strategy without ambiguity or misinterpretation. This heightened understanding can lead to more effective treatment.

Make a Positive Impact in People’s Lives

Overcoming addiction can be one of the most significant actions a person takes. Understanding how to become an addiction counselor is the first step for not only helping people improve their health and well-being, but also helping to make a positive impact on the lives of an individual’s family, friends, co-workers and community.

While achieving this professional goal involves many steps, they are well worth taking. The University of North Dakota’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program and the Addiction Counseling and Rehabilitation Counseling tracks can help individuals learn the knowledge and skills needed to provide this crucial level of treatment to those in need. Find out how UND can help you develop your ability to serve.


Recommended Readings

Webinar: Online Graduate Counseling Programs Overview


Addiction Center, Addiction Counselors

Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, About the ATTC Network

American Psychiatric Association, “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)”

American Psychological Association, “Substance Use During the Pandemic”

Healthline, “Types of Addiction and How They’re Treated”

National Board for Certified Counselors, State Licensure

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, Drug Abuse Statistics

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Resources to Help Your Patients with SUD During the COVID-19 Pandemic

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Verywell Mind, “An Overview of Behavioral Addiction”