Substance abuse is a serious problem in the United States. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national survey, 23.9 million people aged twelve and older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2012. This number equates to 9.2% of the U.S. population that has used an illicit drug or abused psychotherapeutic medication (pain pills, stimulants, or tranquilizers) in the past 30 days. This is up from 8.3% in 2002. The greatest increase has come from the rise in marijuana use.

In 2012, 6.8 million Americans aged twelve and older (2.6%) has used psychotherapeutic prescription drugs non-medically (no prescription) in the past month. Most abusers start in their teens. In 2012, there were approximately 7,898 new users per day under the age of 18. Almost 25% of people from 18 to early 20’s reported using an illicit drug in the past 30 days.

In the manufacturing or services industries, the ideal scenario is to recreate a large demand for your respective product or service. The staggering numbers regarding drug and alcohol abuse have, unfortunately, created a large demand for counselors. However, there is a “treatment gap” in this country according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This agency reported in 2012 that 23.1 million Americans needed treatment, but only 2.5 million or roughly ten percent received treatment at a specialty facility.


Associate’s Degree

The substance abuse counseling associate’s degree program prepares students to provide counseling, career advice and therapeutic services to substance abusers and their families. The program includes training in drug, alcohol and crisis intervention, along with courses in psychology and communication. Most of these programs take about two years to complete, and clinical experiences may be required. Depending on the state, graduation from an associate’s program in substance abuse counseling may prepare students for licensure in the field, though it’s important for students to check with their respective state boards for details.

Sampling of topics covered at this level:

  • Counseling Theories
  • Case Management
  • Psychology
  • Communication
  • Group and Family Counseling

Bachelor’s Degree

Substance abuse counseling bachelor’s degree programs commonly take about four years to complete. They generally include between 40 and 60 credit hours of required addiction studies coursework, in addition to core academic coursework and relevant electives. Students usually are required to participate in field experiences or internships. Completion of such programs may provide students with the skills necessary to obtain certification as addiction counselors. Again, individual licensing requirements vary greatly from state to state.

Sampling of courses at this level:

  • Pharmacology and Psychopharmacology
  • Group and Individual Counseling
  • Sociology of Addiction
  • Relapse Prevention
  • Counseling MultiCultural and Diverse Populations
  • Family Dynamics and Substance Abuse

There are both online and campus programs offered in this field. Most colleges and universities refer to the bachelors level as a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Addiction Counseling.

Master’s Degree

The more advanced the degree in any field of psychology, the more it enhances your job prospects. At this level, some colleges refer to this degree as a Master of Arts in Addictions Counseling, others call it a Master of Science in Psychology with an Addictions specialization.

Students completing a master’s program have the opportunity to engage in psychological research, apply psychological theories to real-life situations, and understand the ethical, legal, and cultural impacts of psychology. Students also develop critical thinking and reflection skills. The Addictions specialization allows students to study the principles of group counseling, psychopharmacology, co-occurring disorders, and addictions counseling.

If your goal is to open a private counseling practice or to qualify for health insurance reimbursements, you should consider a master’s in counseling.


The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2012 reported the median annual salary as $38,520 with a projected job change rate of 31% through 2022. This percentage is higher than the average occupation. However, the median income seems skewed by the BLS as this figure is based on a high school diploma. Regardless, this is not a high paying profession. The best paid earned about $60,000 in 2012, according to a US News and World report.

The encouraging statistic for anyone considering this career is that the BLS predicts 28,200 jobs will be needed from 2012-2022. The majority (44%) are employed in outpatient mental health facilities and nursing/residential care clinics.