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Millions of people are battling substance abuse and addiction every day. Among them are many who are looking for a way to end their struggle and put the pieces of their life back together. Living with addiction brings entanglements and hardships, which means that for many, ending addiction is a struggle, no matter their drug of choice.

If your career aspirations involve helping people in active addiction overcome their dependence on drugs and alcohol, then working in the substance abuse treatment and prevention field might just be a perfect fit for you. Helping someone find their way back to a fulfilling life without the use of drugs and/or alcohol inspires many to enter the drug treatment field, which is full of opportunities to help.

For many people in this industry, the call to help people struggling with substance abuse is personal and stems from a deep desire to help others. Some people have traveled the same road to recovery, so they draw from their own personal experiences as they reach out to help others who are now where they once were. Now, perhaps more than ever, their talents, expertise, and life experience are needed.

What Does a Career in Substance Abuse Mean?

People in this field work in different environments including residential facilities, outpatient care centers, hospitals, drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation centers, detoxification centers, methadone clinics, mental health centers, educational centers, research facilities, and private practices like psychiatry. These professionals also work in prisons and juvenile detention facilities. Substance abuse counselors also work with social workers, registered nurses, physicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals.

Below are some duties of counselors in the substance abuse and behavioral disorder field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook:

  • Evaluate clients’ mental and physical health, addiction, or problem behavior and assess their readiness for treatment.
  • Help clients develop treatment goals and plans.
  • Review and recommend treatment options with clients and their families.
  • Help clients develop skills and behaviors necessary to recover from their addiction or modify their behavior.
  • Work with clients to identify behaviors or situations that interfere with their recovery.
  • Teach families about addiction or behavior disorders and help them develop strategies to cope with those problems.
  • Refer clients to other resources and services, such as job placement services and support groups.
  • Conduct outreach programs to help people identify the signs of addiction and other destructive behavior, as well as steps to take to avoid such behavior.

In 2015, approximately 20.8 million people aged 12 or older had a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) in the past year, including 15.7 million people who had an alcohol use disorder and 7.7 million people who had an illicit drug use disorder.


demand for addiction treatment professionals

Employee demand in the substance abuse career field remains high, with many opportunities and career paths future workers can take. Going into this field can be a rewarding career choice for those who wish to help guide others along their journey to recovery.

As of 2014, the number of jobs for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was at 94,900, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. Data show that as the need for drug abuse treatment grows, there will be strong demand increases for counselors, doctors and nurses, and educators each year all across the country.

The projected job outlook for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors from 2014 to 2024 is 22 percent, much faster than average. (The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent, the bureau says.) According to the Bureau, growth is also expected as more insurers are required to cover addiction and mental health counseling services under the Affordable Care Act. If that weren’t enough, the pay is competitive as well. In 2016, the median salary for workers in this population was $41,070, and the median hourly pay was $19.75.

While certain careers remain competitive, other careers are being requested nationally by the government, nonprofit organizations, and community outreach.


addiction treatment careers

Deciding which career path to take in the drug and alcohol treatment industry should be based on how you would like to help people struggling with substance abuse. The type of skills, education, and specific interests you have will determine which route you’ll take.

However, just like how the journey to recovery can be vast and complicated, your career may evolve along with the drug and alcohol treatment field. As more research, laws, and techniques are being established each year, more and more opportunities blossom to help those in need.

Take a look at this general list of career paths one might consider:

In the substance abuse field, one of the most common careers to have is the addiction counselor. Throughout the recovery process, the addiction counselor will play the most prevalent role in a client’s life. They determine the severity and length of the client’s substance abuse addiction as well as their mental health.

After these have been assessed, they will then format the individualized treatment plan necessary. A large focus will be on the behavioral and emotional problems considered to be the root of the client’s addiction, which will be monitored by the addiction counselor so that gradual progress occurs over time from treatment.

Every aspect of the client’s life will go through the addiction counselor, who will keep the client and their family up to date about the treatment program. Counselors will refer clients to the appropriate healthcare facilities needed such as detox centers, mental health clinics, or other medical facilities necessary for the client’s health to be maintained. Substance abuse and relapse prevention education are also generally advised by addiction counselors to their clients as they guide them along a smooth transition back into society.

Finding a job, interviewing skills, and how to maintain a job might also be a part of the addiction counselor’s concern. Their main goal is always achieving and maintaining recovery for the client in every way possible. Their main duties include:

  • Devising treatment plans
  • Monitoring mental health
  • Arranging medical needs
  • Counseling and supporting clients

People suffering from substance abuse problems tend to struggle with maintaining a certain level of stability in their lives whether it’s maintaining routine employment or having the tools to provide for their family. As such, social workers come in to help recovering clients achieve certain goals so that they can function in society.

The main duties of a social worker can vary from case to case, as they work with various agencies to find the proper care for their clients. Their main concern revolves around the safety and welfare of the client and any dependents involved.

If the client needs help finding a job, meeting certain educational requirements, or maintaining employment, then a social worker will guide the client throughout the hiring process and will keep tabs on the client to make sure stability is secured.

For those with children or who are pregnant, social workers will make arrangements for dependents who need to be housed and cared for while the parent is in rehabilitation and/or detox centers. For more severe cases, they will make other living arrangements as the recovering parent achieves sobriety and stability again.

For social workers with higher degrees, they may also provide therapeutic counseling to clients to monitor their mental health throughout the recovery process. Their main duties include:

  • Helping clients find employment
  • Arranging housing for dependents
  • Referring clients to rehab/detox centers
  • Monitoring clients throughout their recovery

Many facilities require nurses who specialize in addiction and detoxification. People who choose a career in addiction nursing and/or detox will focus on treating patients for symptoms that result from addiction, detox, withdrawal, and the after effects of detox medication that accompany addiction treatment, such as Methadone and Suboxone.

They will make sure each patient is in good health at every stage of the detoxification process and will administer maintenance medication should withdrawal symptoms become too severe for patients to endure on their own, such as for those who are recovering from a heroin and/or opioid addiction.

Nurses play a large part in detox centers and certain rehab clinics, usually taking lead roles in monitoring a patient’s physical health, but they also can aid psychological nurses, taking precautions for patients’ mental health.

Those with higher degrees and a nurse practitioner license will have leadership roles over a variety of clients. While treating clients and watching them struggle with painful symptoms may seem disheartening at first, seeing their health improve is rewarding for many people in the nursing field who want to help strengthen their communities. Main duties for a nurse include:

  • Treating addiction and withdrawal symptoms
  • Monitoring the detoxification process
  • Administering maintenance medication
  • Maintaining good health for patients

People who become drug and alcohol researchers study patterns in substance abuse in the general population to search for cures, improve treatment methods, and find solutions to substance abuse problems. Researchers will monitor addiction rates, particularly for most-affected areas, and will organize and publish data for public awareness. Their studies will often trigger governmental action to take firmer stances on substance abuse issues.

People who choose a career in research search for answers within patterns so they can help the community at large. However, as with most medical findings, it might take years for certain levels of progress to appear. With dedication and a will to reach a solution, researchers observe and monitor every pattern in substance abuse so that one day a cure can be discovered and utilized.

Whether it’s a new medication treatment method or monitoring rises in drug abuse in areas before it’s too late, researchers bring new tools and keep everyone in the substance abuse field up-to-date with the latest technology and knowledge. Main duties include the following:

  • Observe drug and alcohol use patterns
  • Develop new medications for substance abuse
  • Devise new treatment methods
  • Keep information up-to-date

requirements for substance abuse careers

Education is a factor every person should consider when determining a career path to take, whether they want to get into the substance abuse field as fast as they can or if a certain career requires more years of studying and supervised training. Some careers, depending the tasks being demanded, may not always require as high of a degree as other positions, so doing research into what the competition is like and what employers are demanding is always advised.

To become a Certified Addiction Counselor, the student must enroll in a 26-week program that teaches the transdisciplinary foundations and completes a portfolio of 10 biopsychosocials (BPS) and 10 treatment plans. A high school diploma/GED or higher degree is sufficient education in order to enroll in a CAC program. This certification is a specific requirement for addiction counselors.

CACs who wish to teach their skills can continue their certification program to become a Certified Addiction Professional, which would require 48 weeks of training. The program will focus more on Supervision, requiring more intensive transdisciplinary foundations and a portfolio of 20 biopsychosocials (BPS) and 20 treatment plans. Students must complete their CAC program before continuing with a CAP program. This certification can be applied to both a career in addiction counseling and education.

An associate’s degree only requires two years of studying and is generally obtained mid-way to completing a bachelor’s degree program. Certain specialized programs may only take two years of studying, allowing for students to graduate with an associate’s degree in a specific field, such as for nursing licenses.

A bachelor’s degree requires about four years of studying, or two more years after obtaining an associate’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees allow for more well-rounded education with knowledge in a variety of fields with a focus topic for the degree, which can prepare the student for higher education should that route be taken. Most careers in the substance abuse treatment field require a bachelor’s degree or are willing to hire while employees work at obtaining higher degrees.

Certain careers might require a few more years of studying for specific subjects or a master’s degree. Most master’s degrees require only two years of studying after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, but this can vary between universities, which might include a third year or a period of supervised training before graduating.

Some careers might allow with higher degrees in order to do certain tasks, such as for social workers who would also like to work as a therapist for their clients and provide counseling. Educators who would like to work at a university level would also need at least a Master’s degree at most universities, but certain rehab clinics would prefer Master’s degrees as well, depending on the subject they are teaching.

A doctorate degree is the highest degree that can be obtained and takes the longest amount of studying. Once a master’s degree is obtained, students can pursue a doctorate—and in some cases, this can be known beforehand and both a master’s and a doctorate degree will be honored within the same program.

In the substance abuse treatment field, a doctorate degree is only necessary for careers in psychiatry and psychology, but can also be required from professors teaching at a university level, researchers working in medical labs, and social workers working as psychological therapists as well.