Courses Needed to Become a Drug and Alcohol Counselor
How to Become a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor
"I'd like to become an addiction counselor, but I can't spend years going to college to become one!" The good news is that you may be able to enter this field without earning a degree. I did. I no longer work in the mental health industry, but I can help you know how to get started in it if you're looking for a stable, rewarding career that doesn't automatically require a college degree.
Substance abuse counseling is a growing field. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Department of Labor expects "excellent" growth in the industry. Certified drug and alcohol counselors may work in many environments: They may work with youths or recovering addicts and alcoholics who are in inpatient facilities, hospitals, outpatient facilities, or who visit private practitioners.
The pay isn't bad, either. The mean income for certified drug and alcohol counselors is over $38,000. (For in-depth detail, please read my article Drug and Alcohol Counselor Salaries or visit the Occupational Outlook Handbook's page.)
So what does it take to get into this field? You must meet two standards: State licensing requirements and employers' preferences.
Most Common Types of Certifications Available
You may come across a lot of different abbreviations used for describing drug and alcohol counselors. Each has specific requirements for obtaining certification. Here is a brief explanation of abbreviations and what they mean:
ADCA: Alcohol & Drug Counseling Assistant - This is essentially on-the-job training, as an apprentice, for the purposes of becoming a fully qualified counselor. ACDAs can usually do non-clinical tasks. With direct supervision, they are permitted to make chart notations, conduct individual and group counseling that are co-signed by their supervisors. They are not allowed to operate in private practice at all.
CADC: Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor - A CADC may perform the same tasks without their supervisor sitting in, but they are required to work in an agency environment. Some states specify CADC I, II, or III, each level having its own educational requirements. CADC IIs usually must hold a bachelor's degree in a related field, while CADC IIIs are expected to have a master's degree. This article will examine CADC I requirements, with a special note about CADC IIs.
LADC: Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor - To work independently in private practice, many states require a higher degree of experience and education. An LADC can operate his or her own clinic, but is not permitted to supervise other substance counselors.
CCS: Certified Clinical Supervision - In order to supervise other counselors, review treatment plans and case files, and run a clinic that employs other mental health professionals (and paraprofessionals like ACDAs), a CCS may be necessary.
CPS: Certified Prevention Specialist - A CPS position is more focused on community outreach to prevent drug and alcohol abuse by working with schools, police departments, and other organizations.
If you're considering becoming a substance abuse professional, the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network encourages you to imagine the effects you can have in others' lives:
Imagine Who You Could Save
State Licensing for Addiction Counselors
Each state has its own minimum requirements for who is allowed to practice substance abuse counseling and exactly what tasks they're allowed to perform. States typically want evidence that you have met their educational standards, and will require applicants to pass a test to demonstrate their knowledge.
To be an ADCA, usually only a high school diploma is required. This is how I began my path to earning my certification as a CADC while I served on active duty in the military. You certainly don't have to join the military to earn yours! If you can find an treatment agency that's hiring assistants, you'll find it easier to become certified.
Certification requires education in specific areas known as core competencies. These education units can be obtained through online or in-class training in many, but not all states. It's critical to contact your state's licensing board to ensure you will understand the specific standards you'll be required to meet. Visit this link to find the correct agency to check your state's requirements. States sometimes allow candidates to substitute work experience or other education for some of the training requirements, as long as you've met the core competencies education standards. This is especially helpful if you're interested in becoming a CADC II, which normally requires a bachelor's degree, because it allows you to attain this certification even if you do not have a 4-year degree.
In addition to education, most states require a period of internship. I spent a year working as an assistant while completing my training and internship. (The program I was in allowed me to spend one to two weeks at a time over the course of my first year working as an assistant, followed by submitting proof that I'd completed enough hours and duties to satisfy internship requirements. This means I was awarded the CADC after about 18 months of working in the hospital clinic where I served.)
You can find accredited programs for most states at ATTC's programs guide. Not every possible education program is on the list. Online programs are available and accepted by some states. One that's especially worth noting comes from the Institute of Chemical Dependency Studies (ICDS), which is accredited for many substance-abuse programs and accepted by 16 states. Although tuition at ICDS is about $3,500 per semester, financial aid and payment plans are available, including 100% paid tuition for military spouses. Find details on their financial aid programs and how to apply for military spouse benefits by visiting their financing page.
Clinic Standards for Drug and Alcohol Counselors
Clinics are allowed to hire and train anyone they want as long as they don't violate state laws. However, sometimes they may have only certain types of counselors they'll consider for jobs.
Before spending on classes, you may want to contact nearby agencies about their specific hiring standards, especially if you live in a rural area where there may not be many positions available in the next six months to a year.
On a similar note, if you see advertisements where agencies are interested in hiring CADCs, don't be afraid to apply. Include a cover letter that outlines your goals for obtaining certification, and tells them any steps you've taken toward reaching that goal.
Don't Get Intimidated!
If you've been looking for information on how to be a drug and alcohol counselor, you may have felt overwhelmed by the information you've found. Don't be! Follow these steps and don't worry about all the abbreviations and confusing information you've found.
1. Find your state's requirements using the link above.
2. Identify schools that can provide the education you need, either using the links I've provided or by searching online.
3. Contact local clinics, hospitals, or agencies that employ substance abuse counselors. They can inform you about local hiring practices, whether tuition assistance or reimbursement is available, and provide information about whether they expect any job openings in the near future.
4. Develop your plan for how to complete the educational requirements and find an entry level position in your area.
Substance abuse counseling can be a challenging and rewarding career, and it's one you can get into without a bachelor's degree. What are you waiting for?