How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

By Jessica Dearborn

Woman speaking to a group of people sitting in a circle.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a data reporting branch of the CDC, an estimated 100,306 deaths from drug overdoses occurred through April 2021, up 28.5% from the previous year, testifying to the increasing need for drug and alcohol counselors (also known as substance use counselors). But what does it take to become one?

What is a Substance Use Counselor?

There are countless reasons why people take drugs and drink alcohol, and not everyone who uses a substance is addicted to it. Many simply enjoy the mind-altering, physical or emotional effects. However, some people use substances to escape problems and stressors. Those emotional stresses – often difficulties at work or with family – can sometimes lead to a substance use disorder.

A substance use counselor steps in to help those who have become dependent on drugs or alcohol. Their clients require treatment, support and a plan for recovery to step back into the world with confidence.

Counselors help people learn how to remove or reduce their dependency on substances, working with each person and their family as a part of treatment. They often lead therapeutic groups, sharing and discussing treatments and offering healthier coping techniques to deal with life's challenges and prevent them from reverting to substance use. And they can also assist their clients in re-establishing their careers or finding a job.

Overcoming Challenges

It's estimated that more than half of existing addiction counselors are also in recovery. The ability to empathize and share their experiences with overcoming addiction can be an important tool for them to connect with a client. However, it's not required to be a counselor.

Take, for example, Erika Ho, a graduate of the UC San Diego Extended Studies' Substance Use Disorder Counseling program. She is now a Substance Use Counselor specializing in Dual Diagnosis (when someone has both substance abuse and mental health disorders). Erika decided to become a substance abuse counselor after she abruptly became a single mother of four. She had a busy life with an active family and needed a career that "inspired and supported both [her] passions and lifestyle."

On the flipside is Deborah Bishop, a Behavioral Health Technician and another graduate of the UCSD Extended Studies program. She knew she wanted to help others, so she worked as a house manager for a residential recovery center for mental health and substance use disorders while taking part in the program and earning her hours. 

Deborah spoke about her struggles as someone in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder and mental health disorder while pursuing her educational goals.

"Anyone who has endured this battle knows how hard such a fight can be," she says. "I have been fortunate enough to have surrounded myself with like-minded individuals who have 'gone before me' and have taught me how to be victorious in my disease. It's a day-by-day war to be fought but is a battle that can be overcome. To be on the other side feels surreal at times, but like I always say, 'if freedom can happen for me, it can happen for anybody.'"

Harvard-educated counselor and program instructor John de Miranda's philosophy on teaching is "… not to expect mastery; rather, I try to expose students to a great deal of historical and contemporary information that builds an intellectual foundation for their career." 

As with many of those in the field, de Miranda became a substance abuse counselor as a result of his own alcohol use disorder, "My work record was spotty and working in treatment allowed me to be open about my past. I have been involved in this work since my personal recovery from an alcohol use disorder in the early 70s. [I] am always excited to share my experiences with those entering the profession."

However, de Miranda cautions aspiring counselors to be prepared for the challenges of being in the certificate program while juggling family and work. He also notes that students need to be aware that the skills required to become a professional counselor are not the same as a personal recovery program.

The Steps to Become a Counselor

There are four types or levels of alcohol and drug counseling certifications:

  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor Associate (CADCA)
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor I (CADC-I)
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor II (CADC-II)
  • Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor (LAADC)

Completing your degree and a practicum and 10,000 hours of supervised experience are required for the first three levels. Depending on the state, a Master's degree in Behavioral Science may be necessary for the Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor level or a combination of a degree and supervised experience. 

Aspiring counselors have five years to complete their supervised hours in addition to meeting other requirements, including:

  1. Earn an associate, bachelor or graduate degree in a behavioral science field (Counseling or Addiction Counseling is preferred). Acceptable degrees for the first three levels of certification include Social Work, Sociology, Psychology or Human Services.
  2. Complete a practicum.
  3. Complete the required 10,000 hours of supervised work experience.
  4. Pass the written exam
  5. Apply for certification with the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California.

Looking to become a counselor? Visit our Substance Use Disorder Counseling certificate page to request information and learn more.

Please visit the program page for more information on how to become an Alcohol Abuse and Drug Counselor.

You can click on the "More Information" icon to have somebody contact you.

Thank you.
7/18/2023 10:30:56 AM

Brian wells
Hi there...i would like more information about becoming a counselor..I am also a recovering addict/alcoholic myself..please mail me info!
18841 drake rd
Red bluff, Ca
7/18/2023 9:52:34 AM

Annie Katherine Gwathmey
I would like to learn about your cadc program is it online,? How do i apply?
6/4/2023 12:34:50 PM

Chelsi Turner
I am a recovering addict (alcohol) and I have 7 months sober. I have always wanted to be an art therapy counselor for people suffering from trauma. However, after the rigorous programs for addiction that I went through and all of my experiences. I am now very passionate to become an SUD counselor.
5/20/2023 12:59:47 PM

Shawna Hart
I am interested in the Drug and Alcohol counseling course
4/17/2023 6:19:15 PM

UC San Diego Extended Studies
Hi Desiree! Please visit the program page to learn more about the program and apply:
5/6/2022 5:40:26 PM

Desiree Alvarado
I would like information on the substance abuse counselor certificate program please. i would like to apply
5/6/2022 4:55:39 PM

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