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How to Become a Substance Abuse or Behavioral Disorder Counselor

Educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a master’s degree, depending on the setting, type of work, state regulations, and level of responsibility.


Requirements range from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree. However, workers with more education are able to provide more services to their clients, such as private one-on-one counseling sessions, and they require less supervision than those with less education. Those interested should research their state’s educational requirements.

Licenses and Certification

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in private practice must be licensed. Being licensed to work in this setting requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete continuing education every year. Contact information for your state's regulating board can be found through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

The licensure or certification criteria for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors outside of private practice vary from state to state. For example, not all states require a specific degree, but many require applicants to pass an exam. Contact information for your state’s licensing board can found through the Addiction Technology Transfer Center.


Workers with less education, such as a high school diploma, may be required to go through a period of on-the-job training.  Training prepares counselors how to respond to a crisis situation, and interact with families and people with addictions.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Counselors often work with people who are dealing with stressful and difficult situations, so they must be compassionate and empathize with their clients.

Listening skills. Good listening skills are essential for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. They need to give their full attention to a client to be able to understand that client’s problems and values.

Patience. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors must be able to remain calm when working with all types of clients, including those who may be distressed or angry.

People skills. Counselors must be able to work with different types of people. They spend most of their time working directly with clients or other professionals and must be able to develop and nurture good relationships.

Speaking skills. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors need to be able to communicate with clients effectively. They must express ideas and information in a way that their clients easily understand.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition