Substance abuse counseling is a demanding form of community outreach that requires patience, compassion, and a keen desire to help others who in crisis. A good portion of the addict population are people who need help in many areas of their lives. Often these people are unaware of the kinds of assistance available, whether they are eligible, or how to go about finding help. Counselors refer patients to a variety of other services that may help provide a stable platform from which they can fight their drug addiction. The abuser may be directed to a family agency, food pantry, physician or psychiatrist, vocational training center, lawyer, welfare agent or other professionals depending on the needs of the individual. One of the most frustrating aspects of the job, counselors report, is the bias that clients typically face when applying for other services. “People hold addicts more responsible for their problems,” griped one interviewee. Many who seek help do overcome their addiction-counselors estimate that 20 percent of the people in treatment programs can eventually return to work and function normally and these successful cases are a source of unique job satisfaction among counselors. But staying “clean and sober” requires ongoing vigilance, and recidivism (or backsliding) among substance abusers is a painful reality that can be a source of depression for counselors as well as the abusers themselves.
Counselors see people in both group and private sessions. Each case varies according to the personality of the indivual. In the words of one counselor, “You never know what will come up. I spend a lot my time making referrals, but most of what I do is crisis intervention.” Crisis intervention demands a sympatheitc, nonjudgmental attitude and a supportive approach no matter what situation the addict is in, and, as one counselor put it, “You see everything.” Many people who are are drawn to this career have deep-seated personal or religious beliefs about its social value. Their commitment to the principle of helping others keeps them going through the setbacks they inevitably witness on the job. Probaly the most difficult aspect of the job is seeing patients die. Between drug addiction and the range of other problems that often accompany it, such as homelessness, mental illness, and AIDS, death is an unfortunately common sight. One of the great challenges of this noble avocation is learning to control emotions of anger, frustration and even bonds of friendship that can undermine the counselor-patient relationship. Not surprisingly, the burnout rate for substance abuse counselors is very high.
Substance abuse counseling is considered one of the most challenging areas of human/social services. To become a counselor you need a B.A. plus two years of counseling in a related field or equivalent life experience. This could include other kinds of counseling, volunteer work, or experience as a former addict. Though certification is available from most states, it is not required. Some people believe this will change in the future as cutbacks are made and jobs become more scarce.
Substance abuse counselors work closely with a variety of other health and human service professionals including psychologists, social workers, family counselors, career counselors, lawyers, welfare agents and other state employees. Because substance abuse counseling has a high rate of burnout, it’s not unusual for people to turn to other forms of counseling as an alternate career.