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What is the Role of a Substance Abuse Counselor in Recovery?

Table of Contents

Responsibilities, Qualities, Skills & Requirements of a Substance Abuse Counselor

Defining a Substance Abuse Counselor

A substance abuse counselor is an individual with experience in giving substance abuse treatment to clients suffering from drug or alcohol addiction and wants to learn how to reduce or remove their unhealthy dependence on destructive substances and behaviors. Substance abuse counselors work with individuals, couples, families, and groups to share various techniques and treatments for coping with problems in ways other than turning to unhealthy substances.

Group therapy can lead to discussions about family dynamics and how unhealthy relationships can create or feed into addictive behaviors. Once these dysfunctions are identified, the client can begin making important post-treatment plans with a substance abuse counselor.
Group therapy can lead to discussions about family dynamics and how unhealthy relationships can create or feed into addictive behaviors. Once these dysfunctions are identified, the client can begin making important post-treatment plans with a substance abuse counselor.

Counseling a person who is struggling with substance abuse before it becomes “dependence” or “addiction” requires treatment and a recovery plan, It’s the counselor’s responsibility to help these individuals recover from substance abuse and addiction. Although a counselor’s job is to mostly center on the addiction itself, counselors also address any underlying issues.

These issues can vary from social, mental health, job-related, and emotional issues. A substance abuse counselor understands that addiction is a disease, and they know that it is treatable with the right treatment, time, and intervention sessions. It should also be realized that not all treatments work well for every person struggling with addiction. Treatment plans are personalized to help that specific person recover.

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What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

With the guidance of a substance abuse counselor, a person can explore and learn what caused the use of drugs or alcohol, process, and share feelings, develop an awareness of negative thought and behavior patterns, learn healthy coping skills, recognize potential triggers, and create a long-term strategy to maintain sobriety. Both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs rely heavily on the value of substance abuse counseling.

A substance abuse counselor’s role is to:

  • Administer and manage substance abuse evaluations and general assessments. This includes the clients’ physical and mental health, addiction, or problematic behavior and assesses their readiness for treatment.
  • Give unbiased emotional guidance and support for individuals throughout a treatment program
  • Conduct one-on-one, couples, and family therapy sessions to get to the root of the addiction
  • Provide psychoeducation
  • Facilitate process groups and group exercises
  • Conduct periodic drug and alcohol tests
  • Develop a specific plan for treatment based on the clients’ individual needs and goals
  • Help create an aftercare program based on care available in your area

The substance abuse counselor will also manage group therapy sessions that often include family members or other patients in addiction treatment. This will allow discussions about family dynamics and teaches family members about addiction or mental disorders and help them develop strategies to cope with those problems. The Substance abuse counselor also encourages 12-step participation (at least one or two times per week) and makes referrals for needed supplemental, psychiatric, medical, employment, and other services [1].

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Essential Skills of a Substance Abuse Counselor Needs

Empathy for the Client

Individuals who ask for help from counselors are often feeling overwhelmed and stressed. A hopeful substance counselor should learn how to show empathy so they can establish trust with their clients. This is important because it can help develop clients’ willingness to be open and forthcoming about their problems.

Creating a Safe Space for the Client

In order for counseling to be productive, clients need to feel as if their behaviors, thoughts, or feelings aren’t being judged or compromised. Clients who feel that their counseling sessions provide a safe and reliable space for them to talk about their problems without hesitations or fear of disapproval are more likely to share information easily.

Communicating Positive Intentions to the Client

A substance abuse counselor who understands how to be authentic and genuine with their clients shows they are trustworthy. True communication, which involves speaking to clients clearly, and respectfully, helps encourage and inspire clients to express their true thoughts and feelings.

Listening Skills

A substance abuse counselor needs good listening skills. They must give their full attention to a client to be able to understand that client’s values and problems.


A substance abuse counselor must be able to remain calm when working with all types of clients, including those who may be angry or distressed.

Making sure that the clients are getting an individualized approach is one of the special skills of a substance abuse counselor
Making sure that the clients are getting an individualized approach is one of the special skills of a substance abuse counselor

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Inspiring Active Participation

A substance abuse counselor is not a car mechanic who fixes client problems while they wait. Instead, today’s substance abuse counselors want clients to take an active role in their progress because the more clients put into sessions, the more they will get out of them. In addition, counselors can help clients take responsibility for their success by encouraging them to work hard on the change between sessions, share experiences with other participants during group sessions, and be open to alternative perspectives. Thus an essential skill for all counselors is the ability to inspire clients to be engaged and involved.

Substance Abuse Counselor Requirements

Qualifications to become a substance abuse counselor can vary, often depending upon the type of setting and employer. For most positions, a bachelor’s degree is required to be a substance abuse counselor. A Bachelor of Science in psychology is one type of degree held by a substance abuse counselor. However, for greater professional advancement, most counselors obtain a master’s degree.

To be authorized and licensed to work as a substance abuse counselor, a counselor must hold a master’s degree and have 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Moreover, addiction counselors must complete continuing education courses every year and pass a state-issued exam. However, keep in mind that each state’s regulations are different, and the license and certification requirements change. For instance, not all states require applicants to have a specific degree, but many require them to pass an exam.

 Substance abuse counselor will work with you one-on-one in private sessions for the entirety of your stay
Substance abuse counselor will work with you one-on-one in private sessions for the entirety of your stay

There is a long tradition of people who have overcome their own addictions to counsel others to overcome their addictions. Counselors with personal experience overcoming drug or alcohol addictions are sometimes viewed as especially insightful and helpful to those seeking treatment.

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Substance Abuse Counselors vs Social Workers

Substance abuse counselors provide direct support to individuals who are suffering from drug or alcohol abuse and addiction and its underlying causes like mental health issues such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Social workers don’t give direct addiction recovery, or mental health care services, but they do usually help refer individuals suffering from substance abuse and addiction, and mental health conditions to therapeutic services such as counseling.

This great partnership between substance abuse counselors and social workers is important in treating critical substance abuse issues, including the underlying mental health conditions. People who are struggling with addiction often suffer to maintain a desirable quality of life. This will affect their mental well-being over time.

Social workers may assist with life’s necessities like nutrition, housing, and most importantly, treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. In most cases, social workers refer clients with addiction issues to counselors or other mental health care practitioners who specialize in substance abuse counseling. It is clear that mental health counselors, with the support of social workers, can significantly influence positive social change by promoting mental health in the communities they serve [2].

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[1] NIDA –

[2] We Level Up» Rehab » The Roles of Social Workers