Everything to Know About Substance Abuse Counselor Certification

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Substance abuse counselors are professionals that people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction can go to for assessments and therapy. The certification or licensing requirements vary from between states, but most states simply refer to the NAADAC (National Association for Addiction Professionals) Certification Commission.

In this post, we’ll go over job growth projections and the different state certification requirements for substance abuse counselors, as well as some details pertaining to this career path in the following sections.

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What Is Substance Abuse? A definition

Substance Abuse is the improper or excessive use of a substance, typically referring to alcohol or a drug (illegal or medicinal). Most health professionals cite the DSMM-IV (the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition which delineates what qualifies in greater detail.

Substance Abuse in The US

Substance abuse is becoming an increasingly common problem in the United States, due in part to growing prescription medicine dependencies, as well as mental health issues.

A 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) revealed that one in six American adults reported taking a psychiatric drug at some point in their lives, while a research letter in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine noted that one in ten adults had taken prescription drugs for “problems with anxiety, nerves or mental health” in 2011.

Alcohol abuse also classifies as substance abuse. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), nearly 15 million Americans had been diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in 2018.

This includes nearly six percent of the American population, approximately 401,000 of which were adolescents between the ages of 12-17. Alcohol-related deaths rank as the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

The problem can be even worse among risks groups. For example, more than 20% of veterans suffering from PTSD also have a drug or alcohol dependency problem.

Career Prospects for Substance Abuse Counselors

Due to these rapidly rising numbers, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected 22% – 23% job growth for substance abuse counselors from 2018-2028. The median salary for lower-level careers in the field can range from $40,000 to $55,000, depending on the state and position.

Though the certification process may seem overwhelming, it’s clear to see that it’s a good investment toward job security in the coming years. Interest in how to become a substance abuse counselor is on the rise, so let’s discuss some of the basics.

Four counselors sat in line

Substance Abuse Counselor Certification Requirements

Education Requirements for substance abuse counselors vary significantly from state to state, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A high school diploma is often acceptable for entry-level work after some on-the-job training, but some states don’t formally acknowledge those working at this level as “counselors” per se. They would first require a substantial number of logged training hours, and months of practical experience under their belt before being eligible for certification.

For higher levels of certification, a master’s degree in a Behavioral Science is sometimes required, depending on the state.

For example, substance abuse counselor certification in California and Illinois, as well as the Massachusetts Board of Substance Abuse Counselors (MBSACC) require at least a bachelor’s degree in Social Work, Sociology, Human Services or Psychology for eligibility to the lower levels of certification.

This is because their certification aligns its requirements with the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC), which has guaranteed reciprocity with most other International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC & RC) member boards.

However, there are three nationally recognized foundational levels of substance abuse counselor certification available, which are outlined by the NAADAC.

Let’s explore the lowest levels of certification available (the first of which having employment opportunities limited to certain states since it’s a prerequisite for the first level of nationally recognized certification), then briefly discuss some of the higher levels of certification and specialization options.

Basic Certification

Basic certification refers to state-level credentials or licensing, and is the most basic level of certification available in some states. The minimum required education level varies by state, but a high school diploma or GED are usually sufficient.

Applicants will also need to clock in a minimum of 125 hours of board-approved training or education, and log one year of experience treating/dealing with substance abuse in pre-approved practice areas. This can include alcohol or drug rehab centers and methadone clinics, as well as state consortiums and programs.

Finally, applicants must also read their state board of substance abuse counseling’s (or the NAADAC’s) code of ethics before applying for this level of certification and attempting the associated substance abuse counselor certification/licensing exam.

At this level, duties are usually limited to a supporting role. The main objective at this level is to support substance abuse counselors with higher levels of certification as they assess and treat those with substance abuse issues – all while gaining practical, on-the-job training.

Education is comprised of subjects such as the signs of withdrawal (including learning to accurately identify or predict the symptoms of both alcohol withdrawal and drug withdrawal), an introduction to recovery tools such as the 12-step program, Smart Recovery Meetings, and Narcotics Anonymous.

In some states, the educational aspect of the substance abuse counselor certification requirements can be completed through state-certified online classes.

Level I National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC I)

The NCAC 1 is also known as a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) and is the first level of nationally recognized certification.

According to the NAADAC’s website, “a GED, High School diploma, or higher” are acceptable levels of education. Applicants must provide current certification or a state license in substance abuse counseling (basic certification) to be eligible.

They must also complete a minimum of 270 contact hours of Substance Use Disorders/Addiction training and education, part of which must be a minimum of six hours of HIV/pathogen training, as well as six hours of ethics training and education done within the last six years.

Applicants must also have logged “a minimum three years of full-time, or 6000 hours of supervised experience as a Substance Abuse Counselor” and pass either the NCAC Level One exam through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) or the ADC exam through the IC & RC.

NCAC I credentials allow for more flexibility in career opportunities and advancement, as well as increased salary potential. It also certifies one’s skill set and competence as a counselor, reflects dedication to providing quality care, and commitment to maintaining the highest ethical standards possible when providing for charges.

Woman using laptop

Continuing Education

Additional levels of certification include the NCAC II and Master Addiction Counselor (MAC), both of which require further education related to substance abuse as well as higher levels of education in counseling related fields.

The NCC AP also offers specialization opportunities in the form of the following credentials:  Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS), National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS), and National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor (NCAAC).

This allows interested professionals to truly find the niche best suited to their talents.