What is a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Substance abuse counselors, or substance abuse social workers, are mental health professionals who help people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. Degree programs in the field provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to undertake this work.

The curriculum covers the nature and causes of alcohol and drug dependencies, the psychobiology of addiction, abuse prevention, interview and intervention techniques for different client groups, relapse triggers, and relapse avoidance.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling – Two Year Duration
Associate degree programs in substance abuse counseling are introductory programs that combine counseling courses with liberal arts classes. Graduates with this degree typically go on to further study at the bachelor’s level. The following are examples of courses that make up the substance abuse counseling associate curriculum:

  • Substance Abuse Awareness
  • Addiction and Prevention
  • Introduction to Group Counseling
  • Multicultural Aspects of Counseling
  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Ethics and Confidentiality in Substance Abuse Counseling
  • General Psychology
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Family and Addictions
  • Medical High Risk Issues in Addiction
  • Dual Diagnosis (psychiatric illness and addiction)

Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s is the minimum degree required by most employers in the substance abuse counseling field. It is also the minimum credential – combined with clinical experience – that is needed to take most US states’ mandatory licensing exam.

Here is a sample of a bachelor’s level substance abuse counseling curriculum:

  • Communications Fundamentals – theories of communication, communication styles, cross-cultural communication, listening and critical thinking skills
  • Substance Abuse in Education Environments – supporting students struggling with substance abuse, addiction, and compulsive behaviors; recovery systems
  • Lifespan Development – linking concepts of human development with counseling techniques
  • Theories of Addiction – psychotherapeutic approaches in addiction counseling
  • Introduction to Sociology – examination of various aspects of the social environment, human behavior patterns and relationships
  • Medical Terminology – relating medical terminology to various health professions
  • Anatomy and Physiology – structure and systems of the human body in health and disease
  • Families and Health Psychology – individuals’ health issues and their impacts on families and friends, how family history contributes to psychological problems that may lead to substance abuse
  • Multicultural Advocacy – studies in multicultural addiction, understanding the feelings and challenges of clients that may be culturally rooted, advocating through crisis intervention, assessing extreme distress and suicide potential
  • Pharmacology – the history of pharmacology, legal and ethical implications, drug dosage calculations, drug administration
  • Child Development – understanding children’s care through examination of their biological, mental, emotional, and social development
  • Counseling Skills – assessment and treatment; handling resistance and co-occurring disorders; spirituality, coping, and prevention
  • Assessment Procedures in Addiction Studies – tests and scales, measurement theories, how to use tests in different settings and with different clients
  • Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Healthcare – how to manage difficult situations ethically, legally, and professionally
  • Psychology of Addiction – theory, history, and research of addiction studies; assessment tools for outpatient and inpatient treatment; relapse prevention
  • Substance Abuse – the most commonly abused substances, the human body’s reactions to substance abuse, treatment planning
  • Child Psychology – counseling children and understanding juvenile addiction psychology, study of the relationships that children build with parents, teachers, and other adults
  • Juvenile Justice – overview of the US juvenile justice system; policies, programs, and practices; juvenile law, corrections, and delinquency
  • Crisis Intervention and Prevention – assessing and reacting to crises involving substance abuse, suicide, homicide, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and abuse, bereavement and grief, natural disaster, war, and terrorism
  • Social Work as a Profession – the role and perspective of the social worker, social justice and human rights, human behavior, populations at risk, policy and services, abuse and addiction counseling and social work crossovers
  • Child Abuse and Neglect – identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, reporting cases, providing support
  • Healthcare Ethics – applying the cornerstones of medical ethics: autonomy, beneficence, justice, and confidentiality
  • Group Therapy – skills required to make group therapy effective
  • Capstone Project – an original research project on a substance abuse topic

Master’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling – Eighteen Month to Two Year Duration
Individuals who provide substance abuse counseling in a school setting or in private practice are normally required to hold a master’s degree in the field. At this level, required coursework varies from program to program, but generally expands on some of the topics described in the associate and bachelor’s degree sections. Master’s students typically spend most of their time conducting research for their thesis. Sample research areas include:

  • Substance abuse counseling theories
  • Substance abuse treatments
  • Substance abuse and case management
  • Substance abuse among specific populations and settings
  • Neurobiology of substance use, misuse, and addiction
  • Prevention programs and policies
  • Early intervention, treatment, and management of substance use disorders
  • Recovery – paths to wellness
  • Healthcare systems and substance use disorders

Degrees Similar to Substance Abuse Counseling

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Degree programs in psychotherapy prepare students to work as psychotherapists. The curriculum covers the use of talk therapy to help patients manage various types of mental illness and emotional anxiety.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Skills You’ll Learn

Active Listening
Substance abuse counseling calls for the capacity to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines. These are the keys to understanding individual cases and determining appropriate courses of action.

Substance abuse counselors learn the importance of speaking in support of their clients, especially when faced with issues of limited program availability and government funding.

Assessment and Report Writing
Substance abuse counseling involves tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Substance abuse counselors are consistently called upon to interact, to understand, and to support their patients and their patients’ families.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Substance abuse counselors have to deal with their clients’ physical addiction and also with their emotional and social anxieties. Therefore, the ability to assess situations, think critically, and find solutions is a significant part of this kind of work.

Cultural Awareness / Appreciation for Diversity
Substance abuse counselors must work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.

Empathy and Compassion
The capacities to empathize and show compassion are especially needed in this field, because the journey from substance abuse to rehabilitation is a difficult one.

The work of helping people cope with their challenges is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience and an appreciation of small victories.

Social Perception
Clients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While people cannot always express what is wrong, their behavior often provides clues to what is affecting them. Substance abuse counselors become perceptive to these clues.

Stress Management
A good substance abuse counselor needs to be a good stress manager. Challenging situations will inevitably occur.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with people struggling with substance abuse. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Substance abuse counselors are employed in a variety of settings. Some choose to work on a freelance basis, contracting their services wherever they are needed. Counselors may choose to specialize and work with a particular segment of the population, such as adolescents and children, veterans, or addicts of a specific substance such as methadone.

Below is an alphabetical list of the most common workplaces for substance abuse counselors. Sectors with the highest levels of employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are shown in bold.

  • Adolescent treatment facilities
  • Colleges and universities
  • Community health centers
  • Detention centers
  • Detox centers
  • Elementary and secondary schools
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs) – mental health programs provided by some employers
  • Halfway houses
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals – state, local, and private
  • Human services – individual and family
  • Insurance carriers and managed care organizations
  • Local government – public health and social services
  • Methadone clinics
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Prisons
  • Private practice
  • Probation and parole systems
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities
  • Scientific research and development services


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