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7 Skills and Character Traits You Need
to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

See also: Self-Awareness

Substance abuse is a massive, and growing, problem globally. Many people around the world grapple with addiction to drugs and alcohol and substance abuse counselors are needed to help them to overcome their addictions.

If this is a career that seems appealing to you, consider the following seven skills and character traits which you will need for success:

1. Empathy

Some people have a tendency to look down on addicts and alcoholics. It is common for people to dismiss them as being worthless, irredeemable and morally inferior.

However, this is absolutely the wrong attitude for a substance abuse counselor who hopes to be successful in helping their clients to rehabilitate. Instead, an empathetic attitude is beneficial.

This is the ideal job for people who sincerely believe that other people are basically good and that, even when someone has taken a wrong turn, they can get back on the right track if given firm guidance and another chance.

2. The Abilities to Listen, Discern and Read Body Language

Interpersonal skills are an essential prerequisite for success in a substance abuse counselor’s job. This role requires you to not only listen to what a person is saying, but also to be able to parse their nonverbal communications.
First, this is important because it is common for substance abusers to be skilled liars; if they are lying to you, you need to be able to determine that by interpreting their nonverbal cues. Second, it is crucial because body language is useful for decoding whether the person you are trying to help is sober, high, drunk or experiencing withdrawal symptoms at the time of your meeting.

3. An Aptitude for Persuasive Speech

A large part of your role as a substance abuse counselor will be persuading other people to take actions that they may be reluctant to take. This will require some solid powers of persuasion on your part.

4. Resilience: The Ability to Bounce Back After Failure

Drug rehabilitation is rarely successful on the first try. This virtually guarantees that a substance abuse counselor’s job will be filled with setbacks and heartbreaks. Resilience is necessary to carry the counselor through the periods when it seems like everything is going wrong.

There are people who strongly desire to always “play on a winning team”. A person with this attitude would likely have difficulty in coping with the role of a substance abuse counselor; the reality is that substance abuse counselors, no matter how good they are at their jobs, will have to come to terms with many, many instances of failure.

A successful substance abuse counselor won’t become dejected at the first hint of failure, but rather will work at strategizing a different path forward for another try at success.



5. Patience, Persistence and Optimism

Patience and persistence are important character traits for substance abuse counselors because it frequently takes time and effort to make significant headway with some clients. These traits must be present in sufficient quantities to carry counselors through the inevitable times when it seems hopeless that their clients will be able to make progress with breaking their addictions.

Optimism is crucial because it is highly beneficial to keep having faith that you will be able to help people who prove to be challenging to help.

6. Reading Comprehension Skills

New research regarding addiction psychology is continually being carried out and published in various medical and scientific journals. It will be up to you to take the initiative in seeking this information out and applying it to your everyday work experience.

Frequently, you’ll find that this information tends to get buried in the journals. It rarely makes mainstream headlines, and it’s easy to miss.

For example, it is not well known in the counseling community that some simple over-the-counter grocery items can help to decrease an addict’s drug withdrawal effects significantly, even though the research is readily available. For example, black cumin seeds (Nigella sativa) and the common herb St. John’s wort may help to both ease drug cravings and reduce withdrawal symptom in opioid addicts.

If you keep up with the latest addiction psychology research, you’ll find numerous helpful insights such as these, which can help you do a more effective job in helping your clients.

7. The Right Education

Substance abuse counselors must meet varying academic and professional standards, depending on their location and the standards set by their government and prospective employer.

  • USA: In the United States, some state governments, and some employers, have stricter requirements than others for their substance abuse counselors. There are some states where it is possible to become a substance abuse counselor after successful graduation from high school while in other states there are more intensive regulations. For example, in California, it’s a requirement that you complete counseling certification within 5 years from the date of your registry, otherwise it becomes illegal for you to counsel clients.

    It is common for USA-based employers to require a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or a closely related subject. Some employers require a master’s degree as the minimum academic credential for employment at their organization.

    US states require licensure of substance abuse counselors who have a private practice. Licensing requirements include a master’s degree as well as extensive amounts of supervised clinical experience. Continuing education is also an ongoing requirement.

  • Australia: In Australia, it’s absolutely essential to obtain a formal qualification if you plan to work as a drug and alcohol counselor. You have multiple possible options for obtaining the training you need for counseling others. A university degree is one possibility; you’d want to complete a course in counseling (alcohol and drugs), mental health, psychology or social work. Vocational education and training (VET) is another possibility. As in the USA, there are employers who require their candidates to hold a Master of Counselling degree.

  • Canada: In Canada, requirements for addiction workers vary by province. It’s typical for substance abuse counselors to attend college or university and earn a degree in a subject such as social work, child and youth care or psychology. In some locations, you may need to become a member of, or get certified by, a provincial regulatory group.

  • The UK: In the UK, there are jobs for drug and alcohol workers and substance misuse outreach workers. There are no specific academic requirements for acquiring employment as a worker with either job title, however, college is a common pathway into this vocation. It’s also possible to obtain apprenticeships or to gain experience by volunteering first and then later seeking paid work.


Most of These Requirements Are Easily Obtainable

These are the essential skills, character traits and academic credentials you will need for succeeding in a career as a substance abuse counselor. If these are skills you already possess, you’d be likely to make an outstanding counselor. If you haven’t yet acquired them all, don’t let that deter you – because completing a suitable degree program could help you to perfect the skills you need for proficiency in the job.


About the Author


Andrej is an entrepreneur, a digital marketer and an avid internet technologist. Throughout his career, Andrej has combined his passion for cutting-edge technology with a keen eye for emerging industry trends to deliver customised marketing solutions to businesses and clients around the globe.

He believes that the key to modern marketing excellence is a constant willingness to learn and adapt to the ever-changing digital world.

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