Substance use disorders do not discriminate. They affect people of every color, nationality, age, socioeconomic class, and gender. They hurt individuals, families, communities, and countries. They potentially destroy lives, contribute to crime, and pull apart families and marriages.
But there's good news as well: substance use disorders are treatable, and those seeking treatment, with the help and guidance of substance abuse counselors, are able to overcome substance abuse and addictions.
Counselors as Treatment Managers and Caregivers
Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of organizations, but regardless of the setting, the professional counseling services they provide focus on helping individuals stop compulsive, drug-seeking behaviors through medical and behavioral treatment programs.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2006, 23.6 million persons aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem. While not all seek treatment, those who do comprise 9% of the U.S. population, creating a high demand for dedicated, compassionate substance abuse counselors.
Getting an individual to enter a treatment program takes a lot of effort and patience, but once in a program, the treatment begins with the substance abuse counselor. This professional works with the patient conducting a clinical assessment that determines the course of treatment.
The counselor gathers as much information as possible as this stage, information that will be shared with an interdisciplinary team that depending on the individual's personal circumstances can include social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists.
Information Substance Abuse Counselors Acquire during the Assessment Stage:
- Kinds, amount, and length of time of substance or alcohol use
- Cultural issues around alcohol and drug use
- Effects of drug or alcohol use on the person's life
- Current medical problems/prescriptions
- Mental health or behavioral problems
- Legal, financial, employment and stability problems/issues
- Educational background, school problems if relevant
- Current living situation and environment
- Previous treatment or attempts to quit substance use
Counselors Work with Individuals and Families
During the assessment process, the substance abuse counselor also asks family members questions, or to express themselves concerning the substance abuse. The counselor tries to get as broad of a picture as possible concerning the effects of the substance disorder, and family members often provide valuable information that the patient is unable or unwilling to share.
After the assessment process, the counselor works with the entire treatment team to customize a plan. The counselor also develops a treatment plan for the family or significant other too, knowing that substance abuse is not an isolated problem but affects everyone in relationship with the patient.
At this stage, the substance abuse counselor and treatment team determine if medically-supervised treatment plans are needed requiring a monitored withdrawal process, a process that can occur in a hospital's detoxification unit, in a regular hospital unit, or in a supervised outpatient center.
Individuals with mild withdrawal symptoms don't usually require hospitalization, but still need outpatient care with a lot of support, and someone - usually a substance abuse counselor - monitoring their progress, their medical situation, and ensuring their overall well being.
Even if substance abuse counselors conducting the assessment refer the individual to a different facility, they often stay connected with the patient, becoming a case manager, and providing one-on-one counseling, answering questions and concerns, monitoring progress, and communicating with other care providers.
Where do Substance Abuse Counselors Find Employment?
According to the U.S. Bureaus of Labor Statistics (BLS), the following lists the most common places, in descending order, that hire substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors:
- Outpatient Care Centers
- Residential Mental Health and Substance Abuse Facilities
- Individual and Family Services (Social Welfare Agencies)
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
- Local Government
Other organizations that hire substance abuse counselors are halfway houses, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.
In addition, an awareness of the impact of addiction and substance abuse on the nation's health has propelled demand for effective prevention programs. For that reason, schools and other government agencies hire substance abuse counselors to design and implement effective prevention programs and measures.
Career Outlook for Substance Abuse Counselors
The U.S. has become better educated over the past couple of decades on the causes of substance use disorders, placing more emphasis on prevention programs, and sending an increasing amount of drug offenders to treatment programs rather than jail. Addiction is no longer relegated to a personal shortcoming, but a brain disease that must be treated by professionals just as other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, must be treated. These changing attitudes about abuse and addiction have meant an increased demand for substance abuse counselors.
The BLS predicts that the employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors will grow by 22% from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than the national average of 7% for all careers. In May 2014, the median annual salary for substance abuse counselors was $41,870 with top 10% making more than $61,420 annually.
Those interested in this career must have a lot of patience, compassion, and remain nonjudgmental. At one point, most addicts relapse, which can cause depression for both the counselor and the individual. Realizing that the patient hasn't "failed" but only needs support and guidance to regain sobriety or stop drug use remains a crucial aspect of this career.
How do you Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?
Most organizations require a master's degree and certification to work as a substance abuse counselor. Request information from schools offering master's degrees in psychology, and inquire about any specialized programs or certificates in this area. Many employment options exist for licensed professionals with a passion to help others overcome and manage substance use disorders.