What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Addicts often are in the middle of a crisis by the time they see a counselor.
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Getting addicts to quit using drugs and alcohol is a tough job, but many will come on their own to a substance abuse counselor – if only to get out of a jam. However an addict arrives at your office, your job is to help him see the wisdom in quitting by giving advice, listening to his concerns and holding him accountable. You may perform this difficult but rewarding work in a a hospital, treatment center, prison or private practice.


In addition to the necessary license, certification, education and training to be a substance abuse counselor, you must understand all facets of addiction. You must be knowledgeable about the physical, mental and emotional effects of substance abuse, as well as the various stages of recovery. For example, you may think a client does not have a very good grasp on reality and may believe he suffers other mental health issues, when in fact his behavior is quite normal early in the recovery process.


People who seek out drug and alcohol abuse counseling -- whether they come on their own or are forced by the courts or family members -- often are facing some kind of crisis or threat. After years of heavy substance abuse, addicts may be suicidal, homicidal, homeless, in big trouble with the law, or in the middle of a divorce. They might be at risk of losing their kids. You’ll often end up focusing on those problems and helping clients get through one crisis after another. Through it all, you can be the safe, stable force in their lives.

Life Guide

Your job is to guide addicts through the messes they’ve created and help them address the underlying issues that got them in trouble in the first place. Many times, the best thing you can do is refer clients to health clinics, attorneys or social services. You might direct a homeless client to a shelter, suggest food assistance or help an unemployed individual register at a temp agency, all the while providing emotional support and encouragement. Your role is to help patients stay positive and get over the embarrassment they might feel after losing control.


Many substance abuse counselors devote their time to preventing drug abuse among teenagers. There’s a good chance you can keep kids out of trouble if you are seen as a compassionate, caring and knowledgeable friend, rather than a finger-wagging adult trying to scare them straight. Your message can be even more powerful if you have personal experience with drugs and recovery, like many other counselors in the field.

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