An addiction counselor can be a partner in your treatment and recovery journey, working to provide a support system, offering advice, and education.
Addiction counselors are known by many names, including substance abuse treatment counselors, drug addiction counselors, alcohol and drug counselors, chemical dependency professionals, and substance use disorder counselors.
What Is Addiction Counseling?
Addiction counseling involves forming a therapeutic partnership between a trained professional and someone entering recovery from substance abuse and addiction.
Counselors in the addiction treatment field provide a support system for people with a substance use disorder (SUD). More than 40 million people in the United States had an SUD in 2020.
Addiction is common, and addiction counseling helps to provide individuals with strategies and coping mechanisms to achieve and maintain recovery. Addiction counselors can help with the following:
- Immediate medical intervention
- Crisis issues
- The development of important life skills
- Tools for managing cravings
- Coping skills for stress
- Methods for handling triggers and relapse prevention
- Advice and help with making decisions
- Support in treatment and recovery
- Long-term addiction management concerns
Addiction counseling can encompass a wide range of skill sets and aspects. It can be an important part of addiction treatment and recovery, helping to provide a professional partnership and support system in both the short and long term.
Key Facts About Counseling for Addiction
- There are nearly 70,000 substance abuse counselors practicing in the United States, which may not include all of the different subtypes.
- A good percentage of addiction counselors are in recovery themselves, between over a third to more than half. This means that they will commonly have a high level of understanding and empathy for their clients.
- Skill development and monitoring, which can be provided by addiction counselors, can help to prevent and minimize relapse in recovery.
- The field of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is growing at a fast rate. It is expected to grow 22 percent from 2021 to 2031.
- Addiction counselors aim to create a partnership and develop a therapeutic alliance with clients, helping to build healthy life skills that can last into recovery.
What Are the Different Types of Addiction Counselors?
There are a wide variety of addiction treatment professionals that can have a range of schooling, experience, and titles. Typically, addiction counselors have completed at least an associate degree in college, while many have a bachelor’s degree. Again, they commonly have had personal experience with substance abuse and addiction.
Addiction counselors go beyond a traditional therapist in that they become a partner to the client during treatment and recovery. They often act as a teacher, confidant, advisor, and support system.
Addiction counselors are typically licensed by the state in which they practice. They can have a variety of different certifications from national organizations, which can include the following:
- Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC): The IC&RC (International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium) offers this entry-level certification that covers the basics of addiction counseling. It requires passing the ADC exam.
- Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor (AADC): This is an IC&RC voluntary certification that requires a master’s degree or higher in a behavioral health field. These counselors have a high level of experience and training, and they are experienced in treating co-occurring mental health disorders.
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I): This is a voluntary certification from the National Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) that certifies a specialization in addiction assessment and treatment. It requires a high school diploma or GED, current state license, three years of full-time experience or 6,000 hours of supervised experience, a passing score on the ADC or NCAC Level I exam, and 270 contact hours of related education and training.
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II): This certification is provided through NAADAC. It requires a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse disorders or a related field; a current license or credential; three years of full-time experience in the field or 6,000 hours of supervised experience; a passing score on the NCAC Level II exam, the eMAC, or AADC exam; and 450 contact hours in related training and education.
- Master Addiction Counselor (MAC): Also offered through the NAADAC, this certification shows a high level of commitment to the field. It requires a master’s degree; a current license or credential; three years of full-time experience in the field or 6,000 hours of supervised experience; a passing score on MAC, eMAC, or AADC exam; and 500 contact hours of related education or training in the related field.
What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?
An addiction counselor will work to be your partner in treatment and recovery. They work with you to develop coping mechanisms, manage triggers, and build healthy life skills. They offer a safe place to communicate and are part of your positive support system.
Addiction counselors strive to build a trusting relationship and create an alliance with you in recovery. You will work together to make lifestyle changes and manage challenges as they arise.
An addiction counselor will spend a lot of time listening to you. They truly try to understand and empathize with your situation and improve things in your life when possible.
Addiction counselors also have the important role of helping to develop a relapse prevention plan for your recovery. Addiction is a relapsing and chronic disease, with relapse rates similar to other chronic diseases at between 40 percent and 60 percent. A good relapse prevention plan helps to minimize relapse.
An addiction counselor helps you discover the root cause of your drug or alcohol use as well as identify the specific triggers you may have. Then, you can build tools and learn coping mechanisms to manage these issues. The addiction counselor will also help you come up with an emergency plan, collecting information on your support system and what to do in the event of a crisis.
Addiction counselors can also meet with families and offer referrals for support groups in recovery. Family members play a big role in addiction recovery, and addiction counselors can offer advice and information on how to best support a loved one in recovery.
Peer support groups are a vital part of addiction recovery as well, providing mentorship, resources, information, and strength to minimize relapse. Substance abuse counselors regularly facilitate group sessions, helping people in a group setting to work on life skills.
Overall, an addiction counselor can provide many services, as they are a true partner in addiction treatment and recovery.
What to Look for in a Good Addiction Counselor
There are a variety of options available for addiction counselors. These professionals go by many different names and operate through several different outlets.
When choosing an addiction counselor, it is important to ensure that you find someone with empathy with whom you feel safe and comfortable talking. This person needs to be trustworthy, and you need to know that you can share difficult things with them.
Personalities matter, and what works for one person may not be ideal for another. Find a counselor who makes you feel comfortable and someone you can be open and honest with. You may have to meet with a few different counselors before you find the right fit for you.
Remember there are no specific standards for addiction counseling, but there are things that set good addiction counselors apart. When looking for an addiction counselor, it can be beneficial to look at the following:
- Level of education: Addiction counselors with higher levels of education, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree, often have more tools and resources to draw from.
- Certifications: In addiction counseling, certifications are voluntary. Addiction counselors who hold them demonstrate a high level of dedication to the field.
- Experience: It can be helpful to have an addiction counselor with specific experience in your circumstances. For example, if you struggle with opioid addiction, it can help to have a counselor who is familiar with opioid addiction and its treatment.
- Recovery status: Addiction counselors are commonly in recovery themselves. Those who have been in recovery for a long time will often have resources and proven tips to share from their own experiences.
- Affiliations and connections: Addiction counselors can be connected or affiliated with a specific treatment center, program, clinic, or community-based program. Counselors who are well connected can often offer additional resources to their clients.
What Are the Benefits of Using Counseling for Substance Abuse?
Counseling for substance abuse can provide you with insight, self-awareness, and the ability to recognize behaviors, emotions, thoughts, things, and situations that can be triggers for drug or alcohol use.
Addiction counseling can also help you to learn tools and techniques for managing triggers. It can reduce rates of relapse and help you to build new healthy habits for recovery. During group counseling sessions, you are often given the opportunity to test out some of your newly learned skills and work to solidify them.
Counseling can provide a nonjudgmental outlet where you are free to be yourself. In this safe space, you can work through difficult emotions and thoughts that are often wrapped up in addiction.
Counseling for substance abuse is an imperative part of an addiction treatment program. It makes up the foundation of most addiction treatment programs.
Where Can You Find Counselors for Addiction?
Counselors for addiction work in a variety of settings. They are often connected with addiction treatment programs, hospitals and clinics, and community-based programs.
To find a counselor for addiction, your doctor or mental health provider can often give you a referral or information on local options. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also offers an online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to help you find counselors near you.
How Do You Get Started?
To get started with addiction counseling, you will first need to find an addiction counselor who works for you. Talk to this person and get a feel for them to make sure it is going to be a good fit. You will then set up a first meeting and discuss payment or insurance information if applicable.
The first addiction counseling session generally follows a “get to know you” type format, and you will usually need to bring an ID and insurance card with you. The counselor may have you fill out health, mental health, and substance abuse history forms ahead of time, or they can perform an assessment during the first session. The first session will likely detail how the counselor plans to work with you and what future sessions will entail.
You will then decide on a counseling schedule and format that work best for you going forward. Your treatment plan may include both group and individual sessions, and most are about an hour in length. These sessions can vary in frequency.
Counseling will evolve during your treatment and recovery as your needs change.
What Is the Best Type of Counseling for Alcohol Addiction?
For alcohol addiction, counseling will usually include both group and individual sessions. The individual counseling sessions will help to determine what leads to alcohol consumption, such as which types of situations, events, or emotions bring up cravings for alcohol. The counselor can then help to develop coping mechanisms and tools for avoiding these triggers or learning how to better respond to them.
Group counseling sessions provide an opportunity to practice new skills and a safe space to work on healthy habits and life skills for recovery. Group sessions often have a specific topic, and you can hear insight from others in similar situations. This can help with feelings of isolation.
Alcohol addiction often benefits from self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), in addition to counseling.
What Is the Best Type of Counseling for Drug Addiction?
Counseling will vary for each person based on the severity of the addiction, the type of drug abused, if there is a co-occurring mental health or medical condition, and level of support at home.
For drug addiction, treatment often includes the use of medications (such as medication-assisted treatment for certain addictions like opioid use disorder), behavioral therapies, mental health support, and group and individual counseling sessions.
Counseling for drug addiction often includes family counseling and support to foster and sustain a family support system for long-term recovery. Relationships that were damaged during active addiction can also begin to heal with family therapy.
The overall goal of drug addiction counseling is to minimize and prevent relapse by promoting overall well-being and mental health. Drug addiction counselors commonly provide resources for additional services and information on drug addiction and recovery.
- Key Substance Use Indicators and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (October 2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Substance Abuse Counselor Demographics and Statistics in the United States. (September 2022). Zippia.
- Recovery at Work: The Relationship Between Social Identity and Commitment Among Substance Abuse Counselors. (October 2011). Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.
- Addiction Relapse Prevention. (May 2022). StatPearls.
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. (October 2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Alcohol & Drug Counselor (ADC). International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium.
- Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor (AADC). International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium.
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I). (2022). The Association for Addiction Professionals.
- National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC (II). (2022). The Association for Addiction Professionals.
- Master Addiction Counselor (MAC). (2022). The Association for Addiction Professionals.
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction Treatment and Recovery. (July 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2022). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.