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substance abuse counselor

6 Steps to Take to Become a Substance Abuse Mental Health Professional

Substance abuse is a national crisis, with almost 20 million American adults suffering from addiction. Whether you know someone personally or you want to help fight this raging epidemic, you could make a true impact as a substance abuse mental health professional; qualified professionals are needed now more than ever.

To perform your job well, you need to complete a comprehensive training and certification process. And while each state will have its own specific requirements, many will require similar components.

  1. Earn a College Degree: Some states only require a high school diploma and some comprehensive training, but most ask for a bachelor’s or graduate degree in areas such as Psychology, Sociology, Social Work or a similar major. Earning a degree gives you theoretical and practical knowledge and a deep understanding of human behavior and psychology.
  2. Pass a Background Check: To work in the field and obtain a license through your state professional board, you will need to pass a complete background check. You will be required to report your record including convictions, homicide, capital offenses, sexual offenses involving a child, multiple sexual offenses involving an adult victim, felonies, misdemeanors, indictments, court-ordered community supervision, and probation.
  3. Get Supervised Clinical Experience: Before you can become a certified substance abuse mental health professional, you will need to get authorization to perform your field hours. Under the supervision of an approved mental health professional, you will get on-the-job training and the opportunity to practice what you learned in school and sharpen your skills before you provide counseling on your own.
  4. Pass a Certification Exam: Once you complete the required hours, you can apply to take a substance abuse certification exam such as the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors exam or the International Certification Reciprocity Consortium level II exam. When you are approved, you will then need to pay for, take, and pass the exam. The board will receive notice of your grade. Be sure to check into the individual requirements for your state before applying for the exam.
  5. Receive State Licensure: Once your full application has been approved by the state board, you will receive your certification. You will be required to renew it annually and complete continuing education. Licensure requirements vary by state. Make sure to check with licensing boards of the states in which you plan to work.
  6. Decide Where You Want to Work: There are many options of where you might work and where your skills may be most needed including:
    • Hospitals
    • Substance abuse rehabilitation centers
    • Detention centers
    • Schools
    • Social and human service facilities

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Counselor Job Outlook

The demand for substance abuse and mental health counselors is critical and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that it will grow much faster than average for the next decade. As a professional in the field, you would diagnose and assess addiction problems and provide a variety of treatments for clients. You could also save lives. At the very least, you’ll have the opportunity to positively impact others every day. This vital career is characterized by service to others, continuous learning opportunities, and the chance to work with diverse populations. You might be involved in:

  • Individual counseling
  • Relapse prevention
  • Referrals
  • Family counseling
  • Group therapy


Bluefield University is a Christian college that provides you with the tools, knowledge, and support you need to live a fulfilling career of service to others. We offer an online Master of Arts in Counseling degree that is administered by seasoned professionals who truly care about your future. Learn more about this and all our programs.

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