Issues related to the shortage of addiction / substance abuse counselors in the United States

Substance abuse counselors manage the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals who abuse alcohol and/or legal or illegal drugs or develop a physical dependency (i.e., addiction) to alcohol and/or legal or illegal drugs or substances. Substance abuse counseling is not just directed at young and middle-aged adults. The elderly, teenagers, and even children can require substance abuse treatment and many counselors focus specifically on working with and treating certain age groups. In fact, the majority of first time drug and/or alcohol users begin to experiment during the adolescent years1, but it is also common to see individuals in their 50s or 60s entering substance abuse treatment. There is definitely ample room to find your own niche in the growing and dynamic field of substance abuse counseling.

Contrary to popular belief, stereotypes, and public stigma, substance abusers are often average, every day individuals. Teachers, doctors, postal workers, parents, police officers, or students can struggle with addiction and substance abuse issues. Addiction is a disease that affects millions of Americans, causing work, health, legal, and family-related issues and consequences. It is also a deadly disease, as many individuals struggling with addiction suffer lethal overdose or experience other health consequences of chronic alcohol or drug use.

Individuals with substance abuse problems often have co-occurring mental health issues, either caused by substance abuse or in addition to the addiction. This requires substance abuse counselors to have knowledge of mental health and emotional problems and provide the necessary therapy and treatment. Depression and anxiety are common mental health issues that often accompany substance abuse problems.

As a substance abuse counselor, you will likely work with a wide array of individuals and families, from all walks of life. There is a great (and growing) need for individuals with a passion and a calling for working with the substance abuse population and providing the quality care that this population needs.

According to the most recent survey results from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 8.6% of Americans required treatment for substance abuse and alcohol is the substance that is reportedly abused most 1. The substance that appears to be most on the rise is opioid (i.e., prescription pain killer or pain reliever) abuse1. Opioid abuse has received much recent media attention, as it is a substance that has high addiction potential and is dangerously lethal. In 2015 alone, there were over 16,000 deaths from prescription opioid overdose1.

Despite the need for substance abuse treatment, there continues to be a shortage of substance abuse counselors working in the inpatient settings, detox facilities, outpatient clinics, and private practice settings where substance abuse counselors conduct individual, family, and group therapy. Substance abuse counselors typically earn either a Master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or counseling and earn specific certifications in addictions counseling.

These professionals treat individuals throughout all stages of the addiction process, from denial and ambivalence to relapse prevention and maintenance of sobriety from substances. Substance abuse counselors meet with spouses, families, and friends and provide a comprehensive approach to the addiction treatment process.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Advancing Addiction Science. (2015). Trends and Statistics.

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