Best Online Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees


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Substance abuse counseling is a tough but rewarding career for those who want to help treat addiction.

With social issues like the opioid crisis lingering in American society, many feel called to pursue careers helping people living with substance abuse. For these people, a career as a substance abuse counselor — also known as addiction and recovery counselors — might be the perfect fit.

If you feel called to help others professionally, consider pursuing an online degree in substance abuse counseling. Read on to learn more about substance abuse counseling degree requirements and career prospects for graduates.

What Can You Do With a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

A degree in substance abuse counseling can lead to work in both public and private sectors. Most graduates work as counselors or social workers, specializing in substance abuse and addiction services.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, as of 2019, most of the substance abuse counselors in the U.S. worked in outpatient care centers, individual and family services centers, and residential facilities for mental and behavioral health. Substance abuse counseling graduates spend their days in one of these environments, interviewing and evaluating clients, conducting individual and group counseling, and creating treatment plans.

Types of Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

The four levels of degrees for substance abuse counseling — associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate — suit different career goals. Students interested in a broad counseling career may complete a master's in substance abuse counseling, because they will need a master's degree to gain general counseling licensure in addition to their substance abuse certification. Other students stop at an associate or bachelor's in substance abuse degree because that is all their career aspiration requires, and they can begin working sooner.

Curricula for substance abuse counseling programs can overlap with other mental health program curricula, such as social work and public health, especially if those degrees offer substance abuse concentrations.

Associate in Substance Abuse Counseling

An associate in substance abuse counseling suits students seeking supervised counseling or social work positions, where they work alongside other medical professionals instead of working in private practice. The degree usually takes 1-2 years to complete, though some schools offer it in an accelerate online format that can take less than a year to complete.

The curriculum for an associate in substance abuse counseling degree usually covers group counseling, crisis intervention, substance abuse assessment, general psychology, crisis intervention, and the pharmacology of addiction. In some states, this degree alone does not prepare learners for licensed professional counseling work, so associate students often go on to enroll in a bachelor's program.

Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling

Many students start their counseling education with a four-year bachelor's in substance abuse counseling program. This degree is offered at many colleges and universities, often in a fully online format. While in most states you need a master's to practice independently, a bachelor's in substance abuse counseling can help you gain employment in supervised positions.

A bachelor's in substance abuse counseling covers basic counseling theory and group and individual counseling for substance abuse. Common courses include addictive family systems and ethical and legal issues in substance abuse counseling. In most states, bachelor's graduates can apply for certification through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals. They can also continue pursue a master's in substance abuse counseling, which is common for students looking to become licensed professional counselors.

What Is the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Substance Abuse Counseling?

Most traditional students earn the more clinical-focused BS in substance abuse counseling because it prepares them to pursue a master's in substance abuse counseling and licensure. A BA in this major has a broader general education curriculum and better suits those who plan to pursue other careers related to mental health rather than just substance abuse counseling.

Master's in Substance Abuse Counseling

A master's in substance abuse counseling is a good choice for traditional students who want to become licensed and certified substance abuse counselors. This degree usually takes two years to complete, and many colleges and universities offer it in a fully online format.

Learners in a master's in substance abuse program graduate with the skills and strategies needed for professional counseling licensure and substance abuse counseling certification. Courses commonly taken at the master's level include ethical and legal issues in counseling and multicultural counseling.

If a career in research or education in substance abuse studies interests you, you may want to continue your education at the doctoral level.

Doctorate in Substance Abuse Counseling

Learners who want to move beyond independent counseling into research and education careers usually earn a doctorate in substance abuse counseling — either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. These degrees typically take 3-6 years to complete, and their fieldwork-intensive nature means they are somewhat rare to find in an online format.

Doctorate in substance abuse counseling programs usually culminate with a dissertation and a comprehensive exam. The degree's curriculum builds on foundational studies in research, critical thinking, and biostatistics while adding more intensive topics like qualitative inquiry and advanced counseling theory.

A Ph.D. or Psy.D. in substance counseling can prepare for a career as a research scientist for addictions-related mental health research or as a professor of addiction studies.

Substance Abuse Counseling Careers

An online degree in substance abuse counseling can lead to a career in service to others, such as social work, school counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.

The careers listed below are a few examples of what graduates can pursue with varying levels of education, but you may need to research further to find your ideal career. All of these careers show a projected job growth that outpaces the 7% national average for all careers.

Career and Job Growth for Substance Abuse Counseling Careers
Position Salary Job Growth
Social and Community Service Managers $67,150 13%
School and Career Counselors $57,040 8%
Social Workers $50,470 11%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $46,240 22%
Rehabilitation Counselors $35,950 10%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Substance Abuse Counseling Professional Organizations

Membership in a professional organization can lead to career opportunities for both students and experienced counselors. Professional organizations typically offer financial aid and job placement resources to counseling students and continuing education credit for established professionals. They also host events like NAADAC's annual conference, where students can integrate with the counseling community and form important professional connections.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA is the mental and behavioral health services branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The organization's resources for professionals include grants, fellowships, and access to research. Substance abuse counseling professionals can also contribute to SAMHSA's advisory councils for substance abuse-related health initiatives, which collect data on public and professional opinions.
National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers
NAATP is a nonprofit that represents and advocates for addiction treatment providers nationwide. Member benefits include discounts on the National Addiction Leadership Conference and access to past webinars and conference materials. Members can also access NAATP's members-only forum and searchable directory.
American Society of Addiction Medicine
ASAM has represented the interests of addiction prevention and treatment professionals since 1954, providing advocacy, medical education, and an addiction medicine certification. Membership includes access to ASAM's career center, events organized by local chapters, and exclusive discounts on live continuing education courses.
NAADAC, Association for Addiction Professionals
Through research and advocacy, NAADAC supports substance abuse counselors, addiction-studies educators, and healthcare providers. The organization offers nationally recognized certifications for addiction professionals and a variety of resources for counselors.
American Counseling Association
Founded in 1952, ACA is one of the largest associations supporting the professional development of mental health counselors in the U.S. ACA members receive discounts on online continuing education courses, can attend ACA's annual conference, and gain access to ACA's career center and free ethics consultation services.

Frequently Asked Questions About Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

How Do I Start a Career in Substance Abuse Counseling?

The best way to start a career as an addictions counselor is to earn a degree in substance abuse counseling, then pursue certification as a substance abuse counselor. Unlike other counseling roles, substance abuse counselors often don't need master's degrees, and some roles only require a high school diploma, although actual requirements vary by state and employer.

What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

Substance abuse counselors provide mental health support for people suffering from the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. They also develop treatment plans for their patients, helping them learn to cope with their addictions and function as members of society.

Whom Do Substance Abuse Counselors Work With?

Substance abuse counselors work within diverse populations, including those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities. Clientele includes addiction sufferers and their loved ones. Some counselors specialize in working with particular groups, like teenagers or parents.

How Do Substance Abuse Counselors Make a Difference?

Substance abuse counselors help resolve the psychological issues underlying their patients' drug and alcohol abuse. They also help set reasonable goals that can lead to rehabilitation.

Is Being a Substance Abuse Counselor Hard?

Stress and the emotional toll of patient-counselor relationships make being a substance abuse counselor difficult, though the career can also offer deep satisfaction.

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