Jobs in Drug Counseling

by J.E. Cornett

If you've considered a career in substance abuse counseling, there's never been a better time than now. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that drug abuse is on the increase, creating greater demand for drug counselors. It's a field with a number of employment options, yet one that offers average pay and demanding work.

Job Description

Drug counselors, also known as substance abuse counselors or addiction specialists, work with those with drug addictions and their families and loved ones to develop treatment plans, modify addictive behaviors, and sustain recovery. A substance abuse counselor often takes a holistic approach to addiction, evaluating clients' mental and physical health, identifying addictions and the underlying problems that trigger addictive behavior, and assisting clients in developing skills to cope with their problems without using drugs. Counseling those with addictions may involve developing treatment plans, working with clients and their families to help reach treatment goals, and referring clients to services or resources that can assist them in staying away from drugs. Entry-level positions may require only a high school diploma; however, most drug counselors who work in private practice or in clinical settings will have a master's degree in psychology, mental health counseling, social work or in addiction counseling.

Outpatient Counseling

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment centers account for the majority of jobs in drug counseling. These centers may be privately-owned or public facilities, and may offer a range of treatment options for those with drug addictions, from complete outpatient treatment to follow-up treatment after an inpatient treatment or hospital stay. Positions in these settings are typically 9-5 jobs; the trade-off, however, is that counselors employed in outpatient centers are often paid less than those who work in other job settings, making a median $33,000 per year.

Residential Counseling

Treating drug addiction in residential drug rehabilitation settings is on the rise, and the number of jobs in these settings are second to outpatient settings only by a slim margin. Residential settings may include detox centers, long-term rehabilitation centers, halfway houses or hospital-type settings, and may be private- or public-sector jobs. The 24-7 nature of counseling addicts in a residential setting means that night owls can find employment in these facilities, though the drawback is relatively low pay -- residential drug counselors make around $33,000 per year, more than $10,000 less than counselors employed in hospital settings.

Private Practice

Drug counselors who are licensed and have masters' degrees can choose to work in private practice, counseling addicts in an office-type setting. Most counselors in private practice work with other counselors or health care or mental health professionals. Pay in private practice is in the mid-range for this profession, and can be downgraded by the costs of operation.


Public and private hospitals, especially psychiatric hospitals, often employ drug counselors to assist patients who suffer from drug addiction. These are the best-paying of drug counseling jobs, with the median salary topping $45,000 per year, but are often the most stressful, with heavy caseloads and long hours being the major drawbacks.


Federal, state and local governments employ drug counselors in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, prisons, probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities and social service providers. Substance abuse counselors in the public sector often have the same complaints as those working in hospitals -- heavy caseloads, extended work hours -- but are also well-compensated, making a median $42,000 per year.

About the Author

A writer and information professional, J.E. Cornett has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Lincoln Memorial University and a Master of Science in library and information science from the University of Kentucky. A former newspaper reporter with two Kentucky Press Association awards to her credit, she has over 10 years experience writing professionally.

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