Why Substance Abuse Counseling is a Fulfilling Career

Why Substance Abuse Counseling is a Fulfilling Career
July 25, 2019
|  Last Updated:

In our adult lives, we spend the majority of our days busy at work. Unfortunately, research shows that an overwhelming majority of adults loathe their careers. Fewer than half of Americans report being satisfied or extremely satisfied with their current jobs.

When you don’t like your job, you’re at a higher risk for developing resentments, fatigue, and complete burnout. You’re more likely only to provide the bare minimum- and the days, weeks, and years will subsequently drag.

On the other hand, what if work could provide you with the resources and financial security you need- while also securing you the sense of profound fulfillment? What if work could offer you satisfaction, joy, and personal growth?

There is no doubt that a career in substance abuse counseling can be incredibly rewarding. From helping people to learning new skills to collaborating with a passionate team, the work can indeed represent a labor of love. Let’s get into what you need to know.

What Is Substance Abuse Counseling?

Substance abuse counseling refers to professional support and treatment for overcoming substance use disorders. It is an essential part of most structured treatment programs.

Substance abuse counseling can be broad and overarching. Counselors provide extensive services to help their clients learn new ways to cope with the challenges present in early recovery. They have both experience and education in multidisciplinary studies of human behavior, chemical dependency, and psychology.

Individual Counseling Sessions

Counselors typically meet with their clients for a set amount of time each week. In these sessions, you will help clients identify their goals. You will also help provide viable solutions that increase the chance for change and success.

Your counseling sessions may include:

  • Assigning and reviewing homework
  • Discussing and addressing problems within the community (i.e., conflicts with other clients, issues with another member of the treatment team)
  • Examining and exploring cravings and triggers
  • Discussing involvement in other areas of care (medication, therapy appointments, support groups)

It is essential to build rapport with your clients. Ideally, they should trust and respect you- even if they don’t always like what you have to say. Your clients should also feel comfortable disclosing their feelings and experiences with you. For these reasons, excellent counselors tend to have the following traits:

  • Strong, professional, and fair boundaries
  • Willingness to learn (as opposed to thinking you are always right)
  • Open-mindedness
  • Warmth and compassion
  • Excellent problem-solving skills
  • Desire to take risks
  • Strong and assertive communication skills
  • Passion for recovery
  • Time management skills
  • Comfort in working in acute, high-risk, fast-paced environments

Relapse Prevention

Relapse prevention is one of the primary goals of any successful counseling. Many times, clients enter treatment without the resources or tools needed to sustain sobriety. They may feel hopeless, scared, or angry when they first seek help. Likewise, they may have previously attempted sobriety in the past, but they did not receive the results they wanted.

Substance abuse counselors provide their clients with appropriate relapse prevention strategies. These strategies will vary depending on the individual’s needs and preferences. However, they may include:

  • Consistent schedule of meetings
  • Creative expression (journaling, artwork, creating music)
  • Mindfulness and grounding exercises
  • Cognitive-behavioral techniques (changing negative thoughts, looking at pros/cons)
  • Motivational interviewing (reflecting on ambivalence, inspiring positive change)
  • Specific homework assignments related to addictive thoughts or behavior
  • Self-care recommendations
  • Communication skills (learning how to confide and talk to someone else)
  • Accountability through monitoring

Referrals and Coordination of Care

Most substance abuse counselors work as part of a larger team. This team may consist of several professionals including:

  • Therapists and social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Medical doctors
  • Dietitians
  • Other substance abuse counselors

Clients tend to benefit from working with specific treatment professionals that meet their specific needs. Substance abuse counselors work to provide wraparound care that facilitates and coordinates these referrals. Counselors will also coordinate with important personnel in the client’s life. These people may include attorneys, employers, and probation officers.

Family Involvement

Most experts agree that addiction is a family disease. Thus, successful counseling often entails including the family as part of the treatment plan. Counselors may work with family members in the following ways:

  • Providing education about substance use disorders and treatment
  • Giving updates about the client’s progress and prognosis
  • Teaching and supporting the implementation of healthy boundaries
  • Discussing aftercare options
  • Encouraging family recovery resources (Al-Anon, family therapy, etc.)

Group Facilitation

Many substance abuse counselors facilitate group therapy to support clients in their recovery journeys. Sometimes, counselors follow a set curriculum when facilitating these groups. Other times, however, counselors will bring in unique material to share and discuss.

There are many different kinds of groups, but common group topics include:

  • Process groups
  • Managing triggers and cravings
  • Healthy coping skills
  • Family dynamics
  • Trauma
  • Creative expression
  • Spirituality
  • Responsibility and accountability
  • Healthy relationships
  • Self-esteem

Counselors maintain the structure and flow within a group. They are in charge of enforcing group rules and instilling respect among members. It is not uncommon for clients to become agitated, bored, or inappropriate in groups. However, counselors hold the responsibility for making sure that everyone feels safe and supported.

Aftercare Support

Successful counseling requires preparing the client for optimal chances for future success. The relapse rates for substance use disorders remain stubbornly high. Unfortunately, even if an individual has good intentions for sobriety, the stress of daily living can quickly take its toll.

Counselors work to provide efficient and seamless aftercare for their clients. This may include referrals for long-term treatment. It may also include coordination with housing arrangements, such as sober livings or halfway houses.

Another option for lasting recovery may be monitoring. For example, Soberlink remote alcohol monitoring connects the clients to the counselor and other loved ones to keep them accountable long after treatment is over.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor

The requirements for becoming a substance abuse counselor vary depending on the location and employer. Certain titles will require certain degrees and levels of experience. Thus, counselors have many different backgrounds.

Start first by checking with your state licensing requirements. You will likely need to enroll in school and complete a certification or license program. You will also need to complete a designated number of counseling training hours. Finally, you may need to successfully pass one or more board exams.

Substance abuse counselors come from all walks of life. Some people find their passion after entering their own recovery. They want to give back to others who may be struggling.

Others enter this profession after a significant career change. They may realize that they want to start helping people, and they may enter this field with that very intention.Finally, some professional therapists, psychologists, or social workers may provide substance abuse counseling as part of their practice. They may contract with various agencies, treatment centers, or work in private practice.

Benefits of Substance Abuse Counseling

There are many rewards associated with substance abuse counseling. Let’s explore some of the standout advantages.

Helping Others

All helping professions have this inherent reward. It feels good to give back, and it feels good knowing that your work makes a difference.

If you are in recovery yourself, you may feel a responsibility to help others in the way you have been helped. There’s a strong chance you will be able to relate to some of your clients- and there’s also a strong chance they will feel like they can relate to you as well.

Continuous Novelty

Some people prefer the comfort of a predictable day-in and day-out routine. However, if you’re the type who’s up for an adventure, who enjoys something new every day, who gets bored quickly, counseling may be the right profession for you.

With counseling, you’ll always be growing and learning about both yourself and others. No two days look exactly alike. That’s because you’re working with people every day- and we all know that no two people are truly identical.

Nonstop Learning

Do you like the idea of learning more about human behavior? Counseling requires continuous education- both practically and academically. Depending on your state, certification, and license, you will likely need to complete continuing education units every year.

Likewise, your job may also include trainings and workshops. You may be assigned a supervisor who will consult with you about your cases and provide feedback for your struggles.

Personal Growth

As a counselor, you will often be working “out of your comfort zone.” Certain tasks and clients will inevitably challenge you and make you reflect on yourself and the work that you provide. While these challenges can, at times, be stressful and uncomfortable, they can also propel you towards fantastic growth.

Team Support and Camaraderie

Many counselors make lifelong friends with their coworkers. That’s because there is an inherent intimacy involved with this kind of work. You are handling sensitive issues all day, and you are “in the trenches” with your work and your clients.

These friendships are good for your profession, and they are good for your health. Research shows that work friendships can help reduce stress while also positively boosting your professional network.

Final Thoughts

There are numerous benefits to working as a substance abuse counselor. Each day brings something different. Likewise, each client provides you with a new experience. You will witness transformative change, and you will be a part of helping change lives.

About the Author

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in providing psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups struggling with substance use disorders and psychiatric illnesses. She received her master’s of science degree from California State University, Long Beach in 2014. She has extensive experience working in a variety of dual-diagnosis treatment centers, providing services for all levels of care from detoxification to long-term outpatient therapy.

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