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Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

If you have ever explored the wide world of psychology or substance abuse counseling, and the career opportunities offered, then you might have discovered the endless job descriptions (counselor, clinician, therapist, doctor) and the numerous abbreviations (LPC, LCSW, CDADC, PsyD, PhD). Although it can be confusing, the path to each of these professions is similar.

Where Do I Start?

Before understanding the education and certifications needed to secure employment as a certified addiction counselor, it’s beneficial to ask yourself a few key questions to help gain perspective on whether a career in this field is right for you:

  • Am I interested in human behavior and exploring an individual’s abilities, personality, and interests?
  • Do I like working with and educating others?
  • Am I compassionate and empathetic?
  • Can I be flexible and adapt to changes?
  • Do I consider myself to be a patient person?
  • Do I consider myself to be a good listener? 
  • Do I find value in helping others?
  • Do I enjoy problem solving using fact finding and information collecting?
  • Am I energized by emotional exchanges?

If you answered “yes” to many of these questions, it is likely that you possess some of the most important qualities needed when working with others as a drug abuse counselor. When paired with education and training, these traits can develop into a rewarding profession and career!


The type of therapy or counseling you are interested in will help guide your education journey. Job requirements will vary and are dependent on the level of involvement and depth of work an individual wants to have with a prospective patient or client. 

While many employment opportunities in therapeutic settings require a bachelor’s degree in Psychology or a related field (Sociology, Education, etc.), some positions such as a clinical aide in an inpatient or rehabilitation setting, may require a high school diploma coupled with experience or an associate’s degree. Those with a bachelor’s degree can pursue a position as a substance abuse counselor. 

Acquiring a master’s degree opens many more opportunities and is a degree sought after by future employers, especially for jobs in mental health and co-occurring settings. If working one-on-one or in a group setting with individuals, families, and children sounds appealing to you, obtaining a Master’s in Counseling or Social Work degree will prepare you for this work. 

Master’s programs require you to first obtain a bachelor’s degree, then last for about 2 additional years. During that time, you will be exposed to coursework and field work to help prepare you for future employment. Employment opportunities can include inpatient and outpatient therapy, private practice work, and therapeutic leadership such as Clinical Supervisor or Director. 

Those interested in continuing their education after completion of a master’s degree to become a Psychologist would pursue a Doctorate in Psychology, either a Psy.D. or Ph.D. These programs are often completed over 5 years and involve rigorous coursework, training, and research. In addition to working directly with patients, Psychologists might also teach at the college level or become leaders of clinical studies or research teams.

Certifications and Licensing

Once you have achieved the education level of your choosing, there are certifications and licensing requirements that help to enhance your training and further your career. These are a few that are most often acquired in the state of Pennsylvania:

  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) – Bachelor’s degree level substance use disorder counselor who works with individuals experiencing issues with Substance Use Disorders.
  • Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC) – Master’s degree level substance use disorder counselor who works with individuals experiencing issues with Substance Use Disorders. 
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – Master’s degree level mental health service providers trained to work with individuals, families, and groups in treating mental, behavioral, emotional problems and disorders and have passed the state licensing exam.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) – Master’s Degree in Social Work providing therapy, counseling, intervention, and case management services and have passed the state licensing exam.
  • Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT/ LMFT) – Master’s degree level therapist providing guidance to couples, families and groups who are dealing with issues that affect their mental health and well-being and have passed the state licensing exam.

Putting It Into Practice

As the understanding of treatment for mental health and substance use disorders continues to grow, the stigma associated with these diagnoses and actively seeking treatment begins to lessen. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, and addiction are increasing as the world continues to navigate uncertain territory associated with a global pandemic, an opioid epidemic, racial and social injustice, and political strife. Now more than ever, qualified and trained clinical aides, therapists, and substance abuse counselors are needed to help guide, educate, and listen to those who may be struggling with these issues. 

Thinking about a career as a substance abuse counselor? Learn more about the work that Malvern Treatment Centers does to help those individuals who are struggling with substance abuse issues.

By Kayla DonFrancesco, LPC, Outpatient Director

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