What to Look For In a Substance Abuse Counselor [Complete Guide]

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Making Sense of Substance Abuse Counseling Certifications

Overall, substance abuse counselor certifications indicate the counselor’s level of education and any areas of specialization they have experience.

 Substance abuse counselors can be certified in certain states or at a national level. There are different classifications of credentials awarded at different stages of education and training.

A counselor with the most basic level of addiction certification is typically called a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CDAC). However, the wording may differ slightly depending on the organization or state.

For example, in Oklahoma, a counselor with a CDAC certification holds at least a bachelor’s degree and possesses related training and experience.

To become a licensed counselor, states often require a master’s degree. Licensed counselors can pursue additional training in co-occurring disorders and may receive other credentials which allow them to expand the scope of their practice.

Counselors can receive their certifications from various organizations depending on the state they are practicing in.

For instance, in California, many counselors may have a CCAPP certification. CCAPP stands for the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals. The CCAPP is an accredited organization that can provide certification to alcohol and drug counselors in California.

Some certifications are only recognized in certain states. The Certified Addiction and Drug Abuse Consultant (CADAC) certification is one example. A CADAC certification is not the same as a CDAC certification and is only valid in Indiana.

Why Substance Abuse Counseling Certifications Matter

The purpose of credentialing is to standardize the quality of care provided by counselors either throughout a certain state or the country. Counselors seeking certification must pass the benchmark set by standardized testing to ensure that they are at the appropriate level of knowledge and ability for those in the same position across their state or the nation.

Those with addictions need to receive quality care no matter where they go to get help. Certifications verify that counselors have received the proper education and training needed to provide adequate care to their patients. Credentialing also ensures that counselors have the latest information on treating addiction.

These certifications provide a formal indicator of the current knowledge and competence in the field of substance abuse counseling.

 They set a consistent standard for counselors to reach and exceed. The different levels of certification encourage professionals to continue to learn and progress.

Furthermore, standards also help monitor the changing requirements for knowledge in the profession. Certifications help both potential employers and potential patients determine the quality of the counselors they are looking to work with.

An Overall View of Common Substance Abuse Counseling Certifications

As mentioned, credentials may look slightly different in each state. However, some counselors seek national certification. These national credentials give a good idea of what counselors must accomplish to receive certification at different levels.

The National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) has three foundational credentials for addiction counselors:

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II)
  • Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)

Based on the skill set of substance use disorder professionals, these credentials indicate varying degrees of knowledge and formal training. Each credential has a different set of standards to exemplify the appropriate education and experience at each level.

Counselors can progress through the levels of certification.
Some counselors may additionally seek specialization credentials from the NCC AP. These focus on much more specific areas of addiction that are not covered in depth by the foundational credentials.

Specialization credentials include:

  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor (NCAAC)
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS)

Understanding Substance Abuse Counseling Certification Requirements

Knowing what counselors must achieve to receive certain certifications can give you a better understanding of the knowledge and expertise of your counseling sessions.

NCAC I – National Certified Addiction Counselor

National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I) is the lowest level of national certification. However, this does not mean that counselors at this level provide lower-quality care.

Counselors at this level still must meet high standards and demonstrate experience working within the field of substance abuse counseling. However, counselors at this level may have a more limited scope of education and training.

For example, the NCAC I credential requires at least a GED or high school diploma. But counselors seeking the NCAC I credential must already have a current certification or license as a substance abuse counselor issued by a state or other accredited organization. They also must have at least three years of full-time supervised experience as a substance abuse counselor.

Additionally, NCAC I counselors must have at least 270 hours of education and training in substance abuse-related subjects. Finally, those seeking this certification must pass the NCAC Level One exam. You can rest assured knowing that even counselors at level one still undergo rigorous training and are held to a high standard.

NCAC II and MAC – National Certified Addiction Counselor II and Master Addiction Counselor

Many of the requirements for higher-level credentials overlap with the requirements for level-one certification. However, the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II), and Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) certifications require higher levels of education and more hours of training.

The NCAC II certification requires at least a Bachelor’s degree, while MAC certification requires a master’s degree, as the title suggests. Both certifications also require counselors to pass the respective exams.

In sum, a counselor’s level of certification ultimately amounts to their level of education and training on substance abuse and surrounding issues. The kind of counselor that will be right for you will depend on the severity of your addiction and related problems.

If you have several co-occurring problems, you may benefit more from someone with plenty of experience with similar cases or who has specialized education in a certain area that pertains to you.

Further Considerations When Choosing a Substance Abuse Counselor

Certifications are important to consider when looking for a counselor, but not the only significant factor. Finding a counselor that you work well with should be the main goal. You need to see results.

A counselor’s credentials will not necessarily matter, regardless of how prestigious they may be, if you cannot build a good rapport with them. Though it is not a requirement, many drug and alcohol counselors also have close experience with substance abuse or are in recovery from addiction themselves.

Being in recovery can provide them with a greater depth of knowledge and help them empathize with their patients.

What Can Substance Abuse Counseling Do For Me?

If you are new to counseling, it might help to overview what a substance abuse counselor can do for you. A substance abuse counselor’s main responsibility is to work with individuals (and sometimes their families) to treat the mental and emotional disorders surrounding addiction.

In general, when people have good mental health, they are more likely to remain in addiction recovery.

People can work with a substance abuse counselor to address various conditions that may stem from or exacerbate their substance abuse, including depression, anxiety, suicidal impulses, stress, and grief.

Counselors may work individually with patients or in group sessions with multiple patients. The goal of counseling sessions is to help patients examine their issues to recognize and minimize the situations and behaviors that can lead to relapse and hinder recovery.

Substance abuse counselors may sometimes also provide additional support, such as helping patients find jobs. They can also refer patients to other helpful resources like support groups.

As mentioned, some counselors may also work with patients’ families to teach them about addiction and how to support their addicted loved ones. Counselors can lead programs or informational sessions to accomplish this.

During family sessions, patients and their families receive education about addiction, behavioral disorders, coping strategies, signs of addiction, and avoiding destructive behavior.

If I Haven’t Been, Should I Go to Rehab First?

Many people in addiction recovery benefit from counseling. However, it is often best to go through a rehab program for those with complex histories of substance abuse or co-occurring disorders.

 The rehab program can be outpatient or inpatient. The idea is to give addiction sufferers a solid foundation upon which to build their recovery.

But as mentioned, Substance abuse counselors can support recovering addicts in a variety of ways. You can learn better-coping strategies that can help you break unhealthy habits and remain in recovery longer. A good counselor can also address other problems surrounding and exacerbating addiction.

Counselors can even teach your family about addiction, so they are equipped to catch warning signs and help you stay on the path to sobriety. With counseling being such a major part of recovery, of course, you would want to make sure that you are getting the best possible treatment.

You may wonder, “What certifications should I look for in a counselor?” Certifications can differ slightly between organizations and states. For example, more general certifications are needed for specialized areas, such as working specifically with adolescents. To receive certifications, counselors must have extensive education, training, and experience in the field of drug counseling.

So, you will likely receive quality care from the certified counselor you choose to work with, whether they are certified by the state you live in or by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals.

Give us a call today if you’re on the fence about going through rehab first or finding a substance abuse counselor. We can give you the best options based on your circumstances.


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