How to Become a Certified Drug Counselor

Learn how to become a certified drug counselor. Research the education and career requirements, training and certification information and experience required for starting a career in substance abuse counseling.

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Do I Want to Be a Certified Drug Counselor?

Certified drug counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors, work in hospitals, prisons, drug rehabilitation centers and similar settings to help addicts recover from substance abuse and addiction. They counsel patients and recommend treatment options, help patients develop life skills, work on modifying behavioral patterns and teach patients coping strategies to help ensure recovery.

Working with patients who are in the throes of addiction can be quite stressful and sometimes even emotional. Drug counselors may also have to work with many clients at once, and night or weekend shifts are sometimes required.

Job Requirements

To become certified, drug counselors must complete requisite education courses and fulfill minimum training hours. A degree must be earned, which can range from an associate's degree to a master's degree, depending on the level of certification the applicant is seeking. A state exam is also required for certification. The following table outlines common requirements to become a certified drug counselor as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Common Requirements
Degree Level Varies from associate's to master's based on certification level
Degree Field Counseling, psychology, social work or related field
Licensure and Certification A state-issued license is required to run a private practice, certification is available at a variety of levels
Experience Varies based on certification level
Key Skills Strong people, speaking and listening skills, compassion and patience

Step 1: Complete Educational Requirements

Educational requirements for state certification vary according to state criteria and the level of certification being pursued. Initial levels of certification require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. Completion of approved education courses is required for certification, which includes the study of drug theory and prevention, individual and group counseling and addiction and families. Client management and treatment, record keeping, intake, assessment and crisis intervention are also covered.

Educational requirements for certification can be earned through certificate or associate degree programs at many community colleges or in courses offered through university extensions and continuing education departments. Bachelor's programs in substance abuse counseling also exist for students seeking to earn higher levels of certification in the field. Master's programs exist for individuals who want to run their own practice.

Success Tips

  • Take courses that can improve communication. Taking elective courses such as public speaking can help a student develop and improve his or her communication skills. Since communication is an important element of substance abuse/addiction counseling, it is essential that an aspiring drug counselor is capable of communicating with individuals from diverse backgrounds in a variety of ways.
  • Volunteer. Participating in volunteer hours at a hospital or substance abuse center or facility can provide a student with first-hand experience and exposure to the kinds of people drug counselors work with on a daily basis.

Step 2: Earn Practicum Hours

Requirements for practicum hours are different in each state. In California, for example, students must document two years or 4,000 hours of supervised counseling hours before they can apply for certification. In most states, supervisors generally evaluate interns on ethical conduct and competency. The ability to implement effective counseling strategies is included in the competency evaluation process.

Step 3: Take a State Certification Exam

Once the required education and practicum counseling hours are completed, students may take a state certification exam. Most states require that certification be renewed every two years in order to keep the certification current.

Step 4: Consider National Certification

Career options may be enhanced by acquiring national certification that demonstrates commitment and experience levels. Three levels of certification are available through the National Certification Commission (NCC), the certifying body associated with the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC), and can be achieved by holding a current state license, completing rigorous education and counseling hours that exceed state certification requirements and passing a national certification exam.

The first level of classification, National Certified Addiction Counselor Level 1 (NCAC 1) requires three years or 6,000 supervised counseling hours and 270 education hours. A second level, NCAC II, requires a bachelor's degree, 450 hours of education and completion of 10,000 hours or five years of supervised drug addiction counseling.

The most advanced certification is the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) certification. A master's degree in a subject relevant to addiction counseling is required for MAC eligibility. Three years, or 6,000 hours, of supervised counseling and 500 hours of education are also required.

Step 5: Continue Education

Continuing education can help a drug counselor stay current on industry trends and advances, and may also be required in order to renew state certification. Continuing education can be completed through courses and seminars. Continuing education can also help a lower-level certified counselor complete the necessary education to advance to higher levels of certification. For example, a counselor interested in opening their own practice can pursue their education to the graduate level in order to comply with the highest level of certification and meet licensing requirements.

Success Tip

  • Join a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as NAADAC, can provide a drug counselor with a variety of continuing education options as well as other benefits of membership. These include insurance options, access to the NAADAC online store and discounts on re-certification, education and training costs.
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