Becoming a Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 20, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Healthcare jobs are usually in high demand, and this is often true of mental health careers as well. One important mental health role you might consider is a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. These skilled professionals are often instrumental in helping patients achieve wellness and live their own best lives, which can be a rewarding experience for many. In this article, we discuss the role of a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor, with an overview of their skills, potential salary and steps for pursuing this important and potentially fulfilling career.

What is a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor?

A substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor is a mental health professional who cares for patients in the context of addiction counseling and behavioral disorders. They often work for healthcare facilities such as hospitals, clinics and inpatient facilities, and they might work independently in private practice as well. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are often experts in diagnosing and treating these conditions using therapeutic techniques.

Related: How To Become a Counselor

What does a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor do?

A substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor diagnoses and treats conditions involving addiction and behavioral outcomes. Here are some of the specific duties a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor might fulfill:

  • Evaluate patient wellness in the context of substance abuse and behavior problems

  • Create and implement treatment objectives and plans with patients and their families

  • Help educate patients and their families regarding their specific mental health challenges

  • Connect patients with other mental health and lifestyle resources

  • Perform community health outreach and education

  • Develop and maintain patient records

  • Uphold all necessary privacy regulations

Related: Careers for Mental Health Counselors

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor work environment

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors often work in a normal mental health care environment such as a hospital or clinic. They often work individually with patients and in groups, and rely heavily on their communicative skills throughout the course of their day. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors might work regular hours during business days or they might work variable hours or evenings depending on the type of facility they work for. Private practice counselors often work in an office of their own choosing, and might set their own hours as well.

Related: 18 Types of Therapists To Explore as a Career

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor skills

Here are some skills that may be important to succeed as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor:

Patience

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors often work with patients who are in the midst of challenging experiences, whose behavior may reflect those struggles. Counselors in this position must exercise patience in order to provide them with the best possible care.

Communication

Verbal and written communication are integral to substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors' success. They must communicate clearly with other healthcare professionals as well as patients and their families in a clinical setting. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors also usually perform best when they practice active listening as part of their repertoire of skills.

Related: Guide To the 7 C's of Communication

Empathy

Warmth, compassion and empathy can help a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor succeed by allowing them to develop trusting relationships with their clients. Empathy can also help these professionals consider the best interests of their clients and behave in ways that will be of benefit to them.

Organization

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors can often benefit from strong organizational skills. They might leverage these skills in their record-keeping and scheduling activities as well as keeping track of patient information during counseling sessions.

Mental health expertise

Most successful substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are experts in their field of practice. They are often highly educated and have experience with the types of conditions their patients are experiencing.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor salary

Depending on the context, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors can earn a successful living and enjoy stable job prospects. Substance abuse counselors, for example, earn a national average salary of $59,007 per year. General behavioral health professionals earn a national average salary of $44,760 per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a government agency that compiles and analyzes employment data, the substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counseling profession is projected to grow by 25% between 2019 and 2029 and add 79,000 jobs.

Salary and career search outcomes are likely to vary depending on factors such as location, facility type and provider specialty. Be sure to research specific information for the location where you plan to work as part of your career search preparation process.

How to become a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor

If a career as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor sounds like a good fit for you, here are some steps you can use:

1. Finish your diploma

As specialized healthcare providers, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors must usually have at least a bachelor's degree for most jobs. This means you'll probably also need a high school diploma or equivalent in order to be accepted to most postsecondary institutions. If you are still in high school, complete your studies as successfully as possible with attention to classes that are likely to help you succeed in the mental health field.

If you need an alternative credential, try researching options for both online and in-person courses and testing that may provide you with the certification you need. Be sure to determine what type of credential is required for admission into the college or university of your choice.

Related: GED vs. High School Diploma: Differences, Similarities and How To Choose

2. Earn a bachelor's degree

Next, earn a bachelor's degree in the concentration of your choosing. Be sure to research specific degree offerings when choosing which college or university to attend. Certain professional credentials and licenses may be connected to particular types of degrees, so incorporate this information into your decision-making process as well. Be sure to consider factors like tuition, location and financial aid.

3. Consider graduate school

Some successful substance abuse and behavioral health counselors earn a master's degree, and some jobs may require it. Consider earning a graduate degree in your field of specialty if it makes sense for your situation and for your personal and career goals.

4. Explore job openings

When you have earned the appropriate degree and associated licensure, and even when you are near completing your education, research openings for jobs you want. Pay attention to the requirements for roles that interest you as well as preferred qualifications, and consider earning any additional certifications that may support your candidacy. Pay close attention to keywords in each listing because these may help you prepare your application materials.

5. Prepare your cover letter and resume

Using the information you find in listings for open jobs, develop a resume and cover letter that highlight your most compelling qualifications. Be sure to use keywords from each position you apply for, because many employers use software technology to screen applications before they are seen by a hiring manager. Try to tailor your materials to each position you apply for to show interest in the role and attention to detail.

Related: How To Write an ATS-Friendly Resume

6. Interview successfully

When your application materials are successful, you may be invited to interview for roles as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. You might prepare by researching possible interview questions and brainstorming possible answers ahead of time. You might also ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you by holding a mock interview and providing feedback on your responses. Be sure to follow up appropriately with a message of thanks in most situations.

7. Develop and grow

Before and during your first entry level position, continue to develop and grow your skill as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. Consider joining professional organizations and associations that might provide opportunities for additional training and networking. Seek out professional mentorship if and when you can, and watch for opportunities to advance with your employer or another if it is reasonable to do so.

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