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How Can I Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

The role of a substance abuse counselor in the lives of dependent and recovering clients is both supportive and transformative. It is a demanding job with out-of-the ordinary challenges that would require long work hours. Nonetheless, job satisfaction is high for counselors working with clients dealing with addictions because of the positive impact on the lives of clients saddled with substance abuse.

Academic and Licensing Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors

The academic and licensure requirements for counselors in this sector will vary by state. Governing boards and state licensing agencies may impose their own requirements as will hiring agencies and treatment centers. These local guidelines are usually in addition to federal guidelines that are already in place.

The type of program or treatment setting will also factor into the minimum hiring requirements. Some programs may require successful completion of high school and a certificate program from an accredited institution. Other programs may limit the candidate pool to those who have completed a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in psychology, counseling or social work. Completion of certificate programs, passing state licensing exams and prior experience in treatment centers may be part of the hiring guidelines.

Some substance abuse treatment programs may also require firsthand experience with addiction, so a personal history with addiction and treatment programs could be helpful in gaining a foothold as counselor.

Acquiring the Required Clinical Practice Hours

For counselor candidates with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in relevant fields, the training requirements may be an on-the-job phase. Depending on the standards set by the hiring institution, proof of completion of a counseling practicum or capstone project may be enough for expedited on boarding so that you can get started on counseling duties quickly.

For candidates with a high school diploma or an associate degree with counseling certificate programs already completed, the job may require accumulating a minimum number of clinical practice hours under the supervision of a licensed counselor. As counselors-in-training, you may or may not have direct contact with clients, serving only as an observer and note taker while shadowing more advance counselors.

If you plan to go into private practice, you will have to qualify for a counselor license by passing an exam and meeting other minimum thresholds. For instance, before you can even apply to take the test, you need to complete 2,000 to 3,000 hours of clinical counseling experience under the guidance of a licensed counselor.

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Skills Needed for a Career as Addiction Counselor

The basic qualities and skills needed by a substance abuse counselor include excellent communication and persuasive skills along with compassion and professionalism. Addiction counselors should be able to communicate with diverse groups of varying educational and cultural backgrounds, including the patient population and their families, medical providers and other members of the treatment team. You should have excellent listening skills with the ability to show empathy to clients burdened with physical, social and emotional trauma wrought by addiction to drugs or alcohol.

As a counselor, you should be prepared to offer compassion and understanding while maintaining professional distance to ensure that you do not get overwhelmed with the client’s issues and needs. Counselors should have an upbeat attitude that inspires positive feedback and should be capable of quick and rational decision making under duress.

Much is required of a substance abuse counselor in terms of completing the requisite credentials, qualifications and clinical practice hours. The job itself is taxing yet rewarding when client care goals are met. Start with a self assessment to determine if you have what it takes to be successful at counseling substance abusers.

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