Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors typically do the following:
- Assess and evaluate clients’ mental and physical health, addiction or problem behavior, and readiness to 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
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, also called addiction counselors, work with clients individually and in group sessions. Many incorporate the principles of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to guide their practice. They teach clients how to cope with stress and life’s problems in ways that help them recover. Furthermore, they help clients rebuild professional relationships and, if necessary, reestablish their career. They also help clients improve their personal relationships and find ways to discuss their addiction or other problem with family and friends.
Some addiction counselors work in facilities that employ many types of healthcare and mental health professionals. Addiction counselors may work with psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, and registered nurses to develop treatment plans and coordinate care for patients.
Some counselors work with clients who have been ordered by a judge to receive treatment for addiction. Others work with specific populations, such as teenagers, veterans, or people with disabilities. Some specialize in crisis intervention; these counselors step in when someone is endangering his or her own life or the lives of others. Other counselors specialize in non-crisis interventions, which encourage a person with addictions or other issues to get help. Non-crisis interventions often are performed at the request of friends and family.
Some substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in private practice, where they work alone or with a group of counselors or other professionals. These counselors manage their practice as a business. This includes working with clients and insurance companies to receive payment for their services. In addition, they market their practice to bring in new clients.
Career Options and Occupation Outlook
Employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is projected to grow 31 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Growth is expected as addiction and mental health counseling services are increasingly covered by insurance policies.
Federal legislation mandating individual health coverage may increase the number of health insurance customers. In addition, the law requires insurance plans to cover treatment for mental health issues in the same way as other chronic diseases. These factors will open up prevention and treatment services to more people who were previously uninsured, did not have these services covered, or found treatment to be cost-prohibitive. Mental health centers and other treatment and counseling facilities will need to hire more mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists in order to meet this increased demand.
Demand for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors may also increase as states seek treatment and counseling services for drug offenders rather than jail time.
In recent years, the criminal justice system has recognized that drug and other substance abuse addicts are less likely to offend again if they get treatment for their addiction. As a result, sentences often require drug offenders to attend treatment and counseling programs. In addition, these programs are also typically believed to be more cost effective than incarceration and may be increasingly used by states to deal with both budget cuts and overcrowded prisons.
Job prospects should be good for substance abuse and
behavioral disorder counselors, particularly for those with specialized
training or education. Employers often have difficulty recruiting workers with
the proper educational requirements and experience in working with addiction.
In addition, many workers leave the field after a few years and need to be
replaced. As result, those interested in entering this field should find
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors held
about 89,600 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most substance
abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in 2012 were as follows:
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
Nursing and residential care facilities
Individual and family services
State and local government, excluding education and
Hospitals; state, local, and private
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in a
wide variety of settings, including mental health centers, prisons, probation
or parole agencies, and juvenile detention facilities. They also work in
halfway houses, detox centers, or in employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs
are mental health programs provided by some employers to help employees deal
with personal problems.
Some addiction counselors work in residential treatment
centers, where clients live in the facility for a fixed period of time. Others
work with clients in outpatient treatment centers. Some counselors work in
private practice, where they may work alone or with a group of counselors or
Although rewarding, the work of substance abuse and
behavioral disorder counselors is often stressful. Many counselors have to deal
with large workloads. They do not always have enough resources to meet the
demand for their services. Also, they may have to intervene in crisis
situations or work with agitated clients, which can be tense.
Substance abuse counselors talk with clients about the challenges in their
lives and assist them in getting help. These workers must be able listen to
their clients and to communicate their needs to organizations that can help.
Substance abuse counselors often work with people who are in stressful and
difficult situations. To develop strong relationships, they must have
compassion and empathy for their clients.
Substance abuse counselors must make their clients feel comfortable discussing
sensitive issues. Assistants also need to build relationships with other
service providers to help themselves learn about all of the resources that are
available in their communities.
Compassion. Counselors often work with people who are
dealing with stressful and difficult situations, so they must be compassionate
and empathize with their clients.
Interpersonal skills. Counselors must be
able to work with different types of people. They spend most of their time
working directly with clients or other professionals and must be able to
develop and nurture good relationships.
Listening skills. Good listening skills are essential for
substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. They need to give their
full attention to a client to be able to understand that client’s problems and
Patience. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors
must be able to remain calm when working with all types of clients, including
those who may be distressed or angry.
Speaking skills. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder
counselors need to be able to communicate with clients effectively. They must
express ideas and information in a way that their clients easily understand.
Substance abuse counselors often must complete lots of paperwork and work with
many different clients. They must be organized in order to ensure that the
paperwork is filed properly and that clients are getting the help they need.
Problem-solving skills. Substance abuse counselors help clients find solutions to
their problems. They must be able to listen carefully to their clients’ needs
and offer multiple solutions.
Time-management skills. Substance abuse counselors often work with many clients.
They must learn to manage their time effectively to ensure that their clients
are getting the attention they need.
Some employers require a criminal background check. In some
settings, workers need a valid driver’s license.