How to Become a Substance Abuse Therapist

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Nearly 20 million Americans struggle with some form of substance abuse problem, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 3 out of 4 of them are battling alcohol Substance Abuse, while about 40 percent are addicted to drugs, legal or otherwise. Lost workplace productivity, crime and healthcare costs related to substance abuse cost the American public more than $740 billion a year.

Substance Abuse therapists work with people who are trying to recover from substance abuse and harmful behaviors that arise from substance abuse. Many Substance Abuse Therapists work in clinics or private practice, but employment opportunities are also available in public health departments, hospitals and correctional facilities.

how to become a substance abuse therapist

Therapy make take place in one-on-one or group sessions. As a Substance Abuse therapist, your initial role will be to identify and determine the severity of the client’s problems. From there, you’ll develop a treatment plan.

Therapists work with their clients to unearth the root causes that led to the substance abuse. For example, the stress of a bad relationship or difficulties coping with work might lead to alcohol dependence. Use of painkillers following a severe injury might lead to opioid substance abuse.

Substance abuse can take many forms. Drugs and alcohol are the most common. However, gambling is one. Pornography is another. Also, shoplifting has been identified as an addiction in some cases.

By training and becoming certified as a substance abuse therapist, you’ll have the skills to help people recover from destructive behaviors that might otherwise ruin their lives.

If this sounds like a personally and professionally rewarding career path, read on to discover how you can become a substance abuse therapist.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter on becoming a Substance Abuse Therapist:

  • How Much Can You Make
  • Training and Certifications
  • Professional Groups to Join
  • Career Options for Substance Abuse Therapists
  • Finding Clients
  • Helpful Tips for New Substance Abuse Therapists

How Much Can You Make?

The current average annual salary for substance abuse therapists is $46,259. That works out to about $24 an hour. Private practitioners with advanced degrees and years of experience can make more than $100,000 per year.

Training and Certifications

A bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field is the basic prerequisite for pursuing training in substance abuse therapy. Some states also require substance abuse therapists to hold a master’s degree and pass a state-certified exam as well. Check the requirements for your state before choosing a program of study. Here’s another resource with great licensing information for Substance Abuse Therapists.

substance abuse training and certification

To be clear, there are many online training programs offering certification in substance abuse therapy. Some may not care whether you have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or any degree. But to become licensed at the state level and get a job in the field, chances are you will need at minimum a four-year college degree and most likely a master’s.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to offer counseling and substance abuse-support treatment to addicted individuals, their support groups, and the community.
  • Develop and execute treatment plans customized to each patient’s unique situation.
  • How to build relationships with support organizations in the community.
  • When to refer patients to alternative programs or methods of treatment.
  • How to support medical doctors in their patients’ substance abuse treatment.

You’ll also study the underlying causes of substance abuse, which are mainly genetic and environmental. A person’s genetic makeup can make him or her more prone to addictive behaviors, more compulsive and as a result more vulnerable to substance abuse. In terms of environmental factors, you’ll learn how an individual’s life events – such as trauma, stress and early exposure to substance abuse – can also increase vulnerability to substance abuse.

Your training will also cover the physical and mental side effects of substance abuse so you’ll be better prepared to assess a client’s condition. Physical side effects include cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Mental side effects may include greater stress, depression and anxiety. Proper diagnosis is vital to effective treatment. These are skills you’ll develop in training for substance abuse therapy.

substance abuse training

There are a wide range of certification and training programs for Substance Abuse Therapists, here is a great directory that you can explore.

The Association for Addiction Professionals offers nationally recognized certifications in certain specialties that can advance your career. Membership is not required to pursue certification, but you get a discount on training if you’re a member.

The association offers 5 different certification programs:

Addiction Treatment in Military & Veteran Culture

Nearly one in three veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder also has post-traumatic stress disorder. Training leading to this certification teaches the diagnostic criteria, evidence-based treatment, and commonly associated problems with co-occurring substance abuse and PTSD.

Clinical Supervision in the Addiction Profession

Effective and quality clinical supervision is known to impact successful patient treatment. Training in this certification prepares you for supervisory roles in substance abuse clinics.

National Certificate in Tobacco Treatment

This certificate shows employers, third-party payers, and clients that you have advanced education in treating tobacco addiction.

Recovery to Practice Certificate

A national certificate program that provides advanced education in recovery-oriented concepts, skills, and practices that help clients stay on the path to wellness.

recovery to practice certification

Conflict Resolution in Recovery

This national certificate program provides therapeutic training focused on how the brain works in conflict, plus strategies to improve recovery in relationships.

Professional Groups to Join

The largest professional organization for substance abuse counselors is the Association for Addiction Professionals, or NAADAC (the organization’s former name was National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors).

Students who are taking substance abuse coursework or completing internships can also join.

When you join, you also become a member of a state society, which is good for building a social network.  You’ll also receive discounted rates on liability insurance.

More Professional Organizations for substance abuse Therapists include:

Here’s a directory of other relevant industry associations for Substance Abuse Therapists as well as targeted Facebook Groups.

Most of these organizations offer professional development through continuing education, networking opportunities with other members, access to conferences and other benefits such as insurance discounts and member pricing on training materials.

Career Options

There are dedicated facilities throughout the country for substance abuse treatment.  Healthcare systems employ substance abuse therapists in their mental health departments. You can also find job openings for substance abuse therapists at private mental health facilities, public school systems, and state and local government agencies. Offices of the Veterans Administration also employ substance abuse therapists throughout the United States.

career options as substance abuse therapist

Online searches on sites such as ZipRecruiter and will also turn up job leads. Use your connections in professional memberships to learn about job openings that may not be advertised widely.

Finding Clients

Leverage your memberships in professional organizations to network with other practitioners.

If you’re a member of a professional organization that offers an online directory for clients to find substance abuse therapists, be sure to add your business to the list.

Contact other professionals in your community to let them know you’re available for referrals. Clergy, doctors, and even other therapists are good sources for referrals.

You’ll also need a website. List your business name, address, city and state and phone number on every page at the top so search engines will recognize your website as a match for people looking for a substance abuse therapist in your city.

If you accept insurance, mention this on your website. If you don’t, you’ll need to go over payment policies with clients in advance.

Your website should also include a call to action and an online booking link to make it easy for prospective clients to see your availability and book you. This encourages your audience to do what you want them to do, which is get in touch. Here’s one approach: “Contact me today. I can help.”

Helpful Tips for New Substance Abuse Therapists:

helpful tips as a substance abuse therapist

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) maintains an extensive catalog of publications and reference materials on substance abuse issues. Topics include alcohol and substance abuse, suicide prevention, co-occurring disorders, trauma, screening and assessment, planning treatment, professional ethics and much more. All of the materials are free and available to download or read online.