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Drug and Alcohol Counselor Salaries

Updated on September 25, 2012
Drugs and alcohol are a multi-million dollar industry. How much of that goes to chemical dependence counselors?
Drugs and alcohol are a multi-million dollar industry. How much of that goes to chemical dependence counselors? | Source

2012 Job Outlook for Substance Abuse Counselors

I worked as a certified drug and alcohol counselor for several years, although I never did this job in the civilian sector because I'd earned my certification while serving in the U.S. Army. Sometimes people express interest in becoming one themselves, especially when they discover it's not absolutely necessary to have a college degree. Often, their lives have been touched by addiction and they want to do what they can to protect others from the pain their own family has experienced.

If you've been considering becoming a drug and alcohol counselor or working in the mental health field, you may have wondered what kind of salary you can expect to earn and whether it's worthwhile to pursue this field as a career. You may be happy to know that nationwide, salaries for substance abuse counselors are competitive.

How Much Do Drug & Alcohol Counselors Earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the mean income for substance abuse counselors is about $38,120 per year. Half of all professionals in the field earn more than that amount, and half earn less.

The lowest pay reported is under $24,000 per year, while upper ranges can move past the $60,000 mark.

Actual pay rates can vary depending on the type of setting where the counselor is employed. Positions in hospitals, private clinics, and government positions earn the highest median pay, at just over $45,000 per year, compared with residential care facilities, where the median pay is around $33,500 annually. Other categories, like outpatient care facilities, individual and family care services, and local governments, tend to fall between these amounts. Mental health professionals may be paid hourly or placed on salary.

Do Counselors Need to Have a College Degree?

State laws vary on their requirements for certification, and agencies may have even stricter requirements. Many states allow counselors to be certified through on-the-job training, which means a person could potentially be hired with only a high school education.

Many agencies prefer to hire men and women who have at least a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field like psychology.

Some positions and state laws distinguish between education levels, hiring Substance Abuse Counselor I and Substance Abuse Counselor II, positions that may have different responsibilities in the facility.

To discover more about education requirements and schools that offer training for entry level counseling, read Courses Needed to Become a Drug & Alcohol Counselor.

Are There Plenty of Jobs for Drug and Alcohol Counselors?

The Occupational Outlook Handbook projects up to 27% growth for substance abuse counseling positions between 2010 and 2020, an outlook considered "excellent."

To validate this, I checked with some online job search sites. Here's what I found: has a total of 48 positions seeking drug and alcohol counselors nationwide. Of those that posted pay rates, I found them to be at or higher than the median salaries reported by the Department of Labor. About half of them are seeking a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or a person with a master's degree in psychology. listed 6 positions nationwide over the last thirty days. Four of the six sought applicants who are certified, but they did not require a college degree.

These numbers might appear low. After all, that's only about one job available for each U.S. state! However, dependency counselors may also be hired for related positions, such as "Behavioral Disorder Counselor" or "Youth Counselor." Also, many agencies don't advertise their available positions online, choosing to place ads in local papers or through other resources.

If you're considering becoming a mental health professional, do both online and print searches to get an idea of your local hiring climate. If you'd like to check out similar positions, the Occupational Outlook Handbook can be searched online for free. (If you'd like to purchase a print copy for convenient reference, you'll find it available below.)

Experienced counselors may have opportunities to become clinical directors, authors, and public speakers as they cultivate their professional reputations and skills. This provides greater earning opportunities for veteran therapists.

Personal Qualities to Become a Successful Substance Abuse Counselor

Drug and alcohol counselors may have a variety of responsibilities. A position could require an employee to perform any mix of tasks: conduct individual counseling, lead group counseling sessions, work with families to perform interventions, assist with detoxification, conduct intake interviews, develop education and outreach programs, lead education and outreach, and more. Most positions require accurate, thorough record-keeping, and regular attendance at staff meetings.

In general, though, counselors need to be empathetic (though not too much so, since becoming emotionally involved in a patient's welfare is bad for them and bad for the counselor!), be perceptive, and have excellent organizational and time-keeping skills. Many counselors carry a heavy workload. (For instance, when I was active the field, an LCSW caseload was expected to be 27 cases. Although I only had certification, I carried as many as 36 cases at a time.) It helps to have a thick skin, too, because many patients are not happy to see a therapist when they first begin treatment, and the counselor must be able to confront their inconsistent statements and behaviors. (Although patients may feel angry, their anger is often therapeutic. This doesn't prevent them from targeting the person who is working to help them, though!)

It Takes a Unique Personality to be an Effective Drug & Alcohol Counselor

Measuring success is tricky when it comes to a career in chemical dependence counseling. Patients who relapse after completing therapy often don't return to the same treatment facility due to feeling ashamed or having moved. Others come back again and again because they weren't ready to recover in the first place.

As a result, working as a certified drug and alcohol counselor can be stressful. Instead of seeing the rewards of their labor, many counselors only see the heavy workload still in the pipeline: Addiction claims more victims each year, and there is a never-ending supply of patients, it seems. When a therapist does hear back from a patient who is nearing their first, second, fifth, or tenth year of sobriety, however, it can also be extremely rewarding.


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    Heather Henley 5 years ago from Buckfield, Maine

    Nice work, Gator! This will be extremely helpful for people considering entering counseling field.