The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic boost in anxiety, depression, stress levels, feelings of isolation, and mental health issues. Studies show that increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to a rise in alcohol and substance use.
As a result, alcohol and substance abuse counselors are in greater demand as people continue to seek addiction and mental health counseling. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 319,400 substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in the U.S. in 2019. Job growth in the field is expected to increase 25 percent for 2019-2029, adding 79,000 additional jobs by 2029.
How do you know if you’re a good fit to become an alcohol and drug abuse counselor? We spoke with Mark Sanders, LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), and CACIII (Certified Addiction Counselor), at St. Raphael Counseling, to get a better understanding of what it’s like to work as an alcohol and drug counselor.
Sanders said a typical day includes seeing clients individually or in groups, writing letters on behalf of those on probation or seeking jobs, and working with families who have been touched by addiction, which is fairly common. There are different responsibilities and expectations for working with adolescents, such as teens who got in trouble at school, versus adults.
Sanders provides advice for those getting started in the field when you don’t have any experience.
“Depending on what you would like to do for your career, you can start volunteering in a halfway house or detox center, if there are opportunities open in these areas. You can also take an entry-level job in these centers to gain some experience.”
He also recommends taking addiction certification classes which can provide background information about addictions, drug effects, and more.
“There are many opportunities from direct service with clients, to helping individuals re-adjust to life after incarceration, to providing material support such as rides to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings,” Sanders said. “There is tremendous room for growth, as the need has truly never been greater.”
Counseling career considerations
Sanders advises aspiring alcohol and drug counselors to be intentional about what you want to do and why you want to do it, and recommends talking to someone in the field before making this commitment.
“There is a process to getting certified as an addictions counselor, and there is a time and cost commitment as well. Working with this population can be very difficult—relapse to substances is common, as are problems in motivation and honesty.”
According to Sanders, the characteristics and skills of a good alcohol and drug counselor include being able to recognize some of the challenging client behaviors to see the pain underneath. “You must be patient, but also firm, and be willing to challenge individuals regarding some of their thoughts and behaviors.”
Other important aspects of being an alcohol and drug counselor include having the knowledge to understand addictions, both from a scientific point-of-view (i.e. the physiology of addictions and the impact of long-term addiction on the brain) and interpersonal characteristics of motivation. Additionally, understanding the impact that mental health issues have on substance use, as this is more the rule than the exception. For instance, people may start using alcohol to deal with anxiety, but then the alcohol becomes its own issue.
Challenges of being a counselor
Sanders said the biggest challenge of being an alcohol and drug counselor is seeing the impact of addiction on people’s lives. People who are doing well can overdose and potentially die. For example, a client of Sanders recently died of an opioid overdose.
“People will make poor choices and end up losing things—relationships, jobs, or housing—that they professed to want very much,” Sanders said. “Sometimes dishonesty, brought about in part by the addiction as well as learned behaviors of the individuals, can be very difficult.”
Despite the challenges, Sanders reflects on the benefits of being an alcohol and drug counseling.
“There are times when you can really see someone’s life change before your eyes,” Sanders said. “It is an amazing experience to be able to see someone who ‘finally gets it’ and makes and maintains changes in his or her life. Helping families learn about and maintain boundaries is also a challenging, but potentially rewarding, though heartbreaking, experience.”
Sanders said a rewarding part of his job is when he plays a role in helping people make and maintain positive changes in their lives. He enjoys listening to his clients’ stories and working with their families to provide them with some relief.
After 20 years of serving as an alcohol and drug counselor, Sanders still finds instances of hope and human behaviors that surprise him.
“We are all looking for some kind of relief from the stress and anxiety of the world, and our methods of seeking this out can vary tremendously with some being much worse than others,” Sanders said. “However, despite the negative impact of substances, there are miracles that occur–people who have no business getting clean and sober do so on a daily basis. I couldn’t work with this population without these signs of grace.”
If you are studying for the Alcohol and Drug Counselor exam, check out Peterson’s practice tests to help you prepare for the exam.