Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Psychology

Substance abuse is an umbrella that encompasses drug addiction and alcoholism, and it’s long been a central concern among the behavioral disorders that psychology majors learn about as undergraduates, and psychologists study and treat in professional settings. But, as the science surrounding addiction and treatment has become more nuanced, and the treatments for substance abuse more varied and sophisticated, this branch of behavioral and clinical psychology has come into its own as a growing subspecialty. The so-called war on drugs, along with the move toward legalizing marijuana and a greater awareness surrounding prescription drug abuse and addiction, have helped propel substance abuse psychology to a prominent position in the discipline, both professional and academically.

By way of example, the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2008-2009 Occupational Outlook Handbook ranked substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors as the 10th fastest growing profession at the time, with a projected 34.3 percent growth rate between 2006 and 2016. It’s since fallen to 30th in the BLS employment projections, although it’s still expected to grow at a robust rate of 31.4 percent from 2012 to 2022.

There’s another reason that substance abuse counseling looks to have a rosy future: It’s an unfortunate fact that this trend is paralleled by real-world statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that indicate a marked rise in drug-related deaths from 2001 through 2013. This includes a two-and-a-half fold increase in prescription drug related fatalities, a three-fold increase in fatalities from painkillers, and a five-fold increase in fatalities from heroin. As of May 27, 2015, the Boston Globe was reporting that, “Detox programs to help drug addicts in Boston have nearly reached capacity and may soon have to turn patients away, if they haven’t already, as a surge of opioid abuse threatens to increase demand on the services.” That’s just an anecdotal example of what other cities and states are experiencing nationwide.

Given the convincing proportion of those numbers, it’s probably not surprising that more and more colleges and universities have been developing and implementing on-campus and online bachelor’s degree programs in substance abuse psychology. In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at these programs and the various options for earning an undergraduate degree in psychology tailored toward the growing field of substance abuse and addiction counseling, treatment, and prevention. We’ll also survey the kinds of jobs that are open to bachelor’s degree graduates and the salary outlook for those positions.

What Is a Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Psychology?

Actually, a better question might be, how does a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse psychology differ from a regular bachelor’s degree in psychology? The answer lies in the details. A bachelor’s degree in substance abuse psychology includes much of the foundational coursework that’s typically found in most undergraduate psychology programs, including classes in the general principles of psychology, the history of psychology, psychological theories of development, and psychological research methodologies and statistical analysis. It should also introduce students to the concepts surrounding social psychology, or the dynamics of individual behavior in group settings, and cognitive psychology, although these classes may also be tailored to the unique demands of substance abuse treatment, prevention, assessment, and counseling.

Bachelor’s in Substance Abuse Psychology Concepts

  • Examine the prevention, development, and treatment of substance abuse
  • Classifications of illicit, prescription, and over-the-counter drugs
  • Physiological and psychological effects of various drugs
  • Relation of brain and addiction
  • Diagnostic criteria for determining substance abuse
  • Psychosocial issues associated with substance abuse
  • Educational models
  • Demographics associated with levels of abuse
  • Counseling psychology aspects
  • Case management issues
  • Foundations of psychology

Bachelor’s degrees in substance abuse psychology sometimes fall under the heading of substance abuse counseling, addition treatment, or other related terms. In other cases, colleges and universities may offer a substance abuse studies minor through their psychology department. And, bachelor’s degrees in substance abuse psychology can be bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees. The former may include more general education requirement, while the latter could include more in the way of scientific study. But, these things tend to vary from program to program, and school to school, much more so than, say, any standard deviation between a typical BA and a typical BS in psychology or substance abuse psychology.

Substance Abuse Psychology Coursework

Below is a chart that illustrates what a well-rounded, four-year course of study in substance abuse psychology or addiction studies and treatment might look like in terms of core areas of concentration.

CourseArea of Study
Intro to PsychologyA survey class that lays the foundation for the scientific study of behavior, research evaluation, and various theories of psychology.
Statistical Research MethodologiesThe quantitative studies that psychologists design, implement, and interpret in order to assess behavior as part of psychological research.
BiopsychologyAn investigation of the biological basis for behavior, including anatomy, genetics, neurological function, psychopharmacology, and other factors.
Social PsychologyHow interpersonal and group interactions affect behavioral and emotional well being.
Abnormal PsychologyThe study of human behavior abnormalities and dysfunctions, and the assessment techniques, research methods, and treatment protocols associated with different abnormal psychological conditions.
Developmental PsychologyTheories and concepts regarding the emotional and behavioral development in people throughout the various stages of life.
Psychology of AddictionAn exploration of addictive behaviors and their basis in familial, societal, and communal situations, as well as the various theories of addition assessment and treatment.
Substance Abuse CounselingThe theories and practices of substance abuse treatment, prevention, and counseling.
Health or Holistic Health PsychologyAn exploration of the psychological and behavioral factors that complicate physical health and well being, including additions and other behavioral disorders.
Addiction Assessment and TestingHow to use various psychometric theories and techniques in the treatment and prevention of addiction and related behavioral disorders.

Most bachelor’s degree programs in substance abuse psychology will also include a full complement of general education courses, particularly in the area of writing and communications skills, critical thinking and analysis, and computer literacy. As the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook points out, in addition to compassion and patience, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors need to have finely honed listening, speaking, and interpersonal skills. The American Job Center Network’s ONet Online goes on to emphasize that substance abuse counseling requires meticulous record keeping and a familiarity with medical and social service database software. It’s particularly important when exploring online degree programs to make sure that they address these kinds of needs.

Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook

The educational requirements and licensing procedures for addiction and substance abuse counselors vary from state to state and there really is no well-defined industry standard. There are a number of professional groups that offer state-by-state guidance in this regard, as well as independent certifications, including the Association for Addiction Professionals (, the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (, and the American Counseling Association (ACA). But, according to the latest reports from the BLS, “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.”

The BLS statistics reveal that 44 percent of substance abuse professionals employed in 2012 worked either in mental health and substance abuse centers or residential care facilities, followed by individual and family services (13 percent); state and local government agencies (11 percent); and hospitals (10 percent). And, these are just some of the growing number of areas in which substance abuse specialists with bachelor’s degrees are finding employment.

A bachelor’s degree in substance abuse psychology also presents a solid foundation for further study, which could include a master’s degree in addiction treatment and counseling followed by a doctorate in the same specialization or a related area of psychological study. Let’s look at projected growth in the field of substance abuse counseling in a comparative fashion, and how working in the field of substance abuse psychology stacks up against similar professions in terms of average annual salary.

Projected Job Outlook through 2012-22 as Per the BLS:

  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: 31.4%
  • Mental Health, Marriage, and Family Counselors: 29%
  • School and Career Counselors: 12%
  • Psychologists: 12%
  • Social Workers: 19%

The latest data form the BLS’s Occupational Employment Statistics, dated May 2014, put the average annual salary of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors at $41,870. But, for those aiming to enter the job market directly from a bachelor’s degree program, without the added benefit of a master’s or PhD, it’s worth taking a closer look at that number. In fact, the median annual income for substance abuse counselor was slightly lower, at $39,270, and those in the lowest 10 and 25 percent earned $25,310 and $31,400, respectively. Those latter numbers may be more indicative of what a substance abuse counselor with a bachelor’s degree might earn in a job market in which there is competition from master’s and doctoral degree holders.

Median Annual Salary for Substance Abuse Counselors and Other Related Fields.

  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: $39,270
  • Mental Health Counselors: $40,850
  • Clinical, Counseling and School Psychologists: $68,900
  • Marriage and Family Therapists: $48,040
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker: $41,380

Career Possibilities with a Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Psychology:

  • Various careers in counseling clinics
  • Substance abuse counselor (requires a master’s degree)
  • Substance abuse social worker (requires a master’s degree)
  • Clinical psychologist (requires a PhD)
  • Substance abuse case manager
  • Community and human services areas

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