A substance abuse counselor helps patients overcome addiction.

The job outlook for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is promising, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Employment is expected to grow 23% from 2016 to 2026, the bureau projects.

The anticipated growth may be the result of more people seeking help to address addiction issues, and as states are leaning toward offering treatment and counseling for drug offenders in lieu of jail.


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Organizations and government agencies at the local, state and federal levels have mobilized to address the rate of substance abuse in the United States. In 2015, more than 27 million people used illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs, and more than 66 million people reported binge drinking, according to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.

In 2016, the average pay for a substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselor was $44,160 a year. This figure should be used as a guideline, as actual salaries may depend on location, educational attainment, work environment and myriad other factors. People are encouraged to conduct their own salary research.

What sets substance abuse counseling apart from some other psychology career options is that it can be a very personal pursuit for practitioners. Many people in the field have either suffered from substance abuse or are familiar with someone — maybe a friend or family member — who has suffered.

Where Substance Abuse Counselors Work

Some substance abuse counselors seek positions in small, community-focused nonprofit organizations. Others work for major healthcare providers. There are counselors who start their own practices, either by themselves or as part of a small team of practitioners.

Companies of all sizes call upon substance abuse counselors to design support systems and education to help employees. And substance abuse counselors are in demand for criminal justice agencies and programs.

Where you work is just one consideration. How you work is another.

Counselors may opt to provide one-on-one support or work with groups. They can stay in one location, or travel from site to site. Some professionals take an interest in research, analyzing and reporting information that can help other counselors provide a higher level of care.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

Although education requirements vary by state and employer, a degree in psychology can provide a foundation in human behavior, including courses that cover cognitive, forensic and abnormal psychology, human development, research methods and emerging theories.

Some psychology students may narrow their studies to substance abuse counseling, seeking answers to the following questions:

  • How do drugs interact with the human body, and how are they misused?
  • Why are certain drugs considered legal why others are outlawed?
  • What is the social and cultural impact of substance abuse?
  • How do counselors effectively provide treatment for substance abuse?
  • How can legalization affect the societal impact and treatment of substance abuse?

Counselors specializing in substance abuse must possess a license to practice and supervised clinical experience, according to the BLS. Requirements may vary by state. More information can be found through the National Board for Certified Counselors and the Addiction Technology Transfer Network.

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