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Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors salary & career outlook

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Reality television programs like ""Intervention"" and celebrity tabloids have recently sparked public awareness of -- and perhaps interest in -- the treatment of addiction and behavioral disorders. But for most patients and families battling these disorders, it is substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors -- not producers or paparazzi photographers -- who offer a path toward recovery. It can be an emotionally taxing, but rewarding career. If U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections hold true, it might be a promising one, too (BLS.gov, 2012).

What substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors do

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors provide therapy and recovery support for patients battling addiction, including alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders or other behavioral problems. There are a number of tools they may use to accomplish this, including 12-step programs and community groups. While daily duties vary with experience, setting or specialty, the BLS reports these professionals usually perform the following tasks (BLS.gov, 2012):

  • Evaluating clients' mental and physical health, addiction and willingness to receive treatment
  • Establishing treatment plans and goals for clients
  • Reviewing treatment options with patients and their loved ones
  • Helping clients develop the perspective and skills necessary to recover from addiction
  • Working with patients to identify and remove barriers to their recovery
  • Teaching affected loved ones about addiction or other behavior disorders and helping them develop coping skills
  • Referring clients to programs and services that can support them during and after recovery
  • Developing outreach programs to educate communities about addiction and how to avoid it

The BLS notes that this job demands compassionate professionals with excellent listening, speaking and people skills. Most everything else can be mastered through substance abuse and behavioral addiction counselor schools or certification programs.

How to start a career as a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor

There are a number of ways people can become a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor. According to the BLS, requirements range from high school diplomas to master's degrees (BLS.gov, 2012). Those working in private practice must be licensed, which means they must complete a master's degree and some clinical experience. Students may be able to complete at least some of their substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor education online. This can be an especially helpful option for those already working in the field who want to improve their earnings or advancement prospects through additional training.

Salary stats and trends for substance abuse, behavioral disorder counselors

It can be difficult to estimate precisely how much you could earn in this field as a number of factors contribute. The BLS reports that the national median substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor salary in 2011 was $38,560 with the bottom 10 percent of workers earning up to $25,280 and the top 10 percent of workers earning at least $60,220 (BLS.gov, 2011). These figures differ from those provided by the salary tracking website PayScale (payscale.com). According to PayScale, the national median substance abuse counselor salary in 2012 was $33,024. Behavior therapists earned a comparable $33,561. In both cases, earnings tended to improve with experience, education and certification or licensure.

Your employer can also impact your earnings. According to the BLS, the top paying industries employing substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in 2011 were:

  • Colleges, universities and professional schools: $54,710 mean national
  • Civic and social organizations: $51,900 mean national
  • Nursing care facilities: $51,600 mean national

When estimating how much you could earn as a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor, it is important to consider location, too. According to the BLS, the following states reported the highest mean salaries for these professionals in 2011:

  • Hawaii: $54,490
  • Michigan: $52,780
  • New Jersey: $49,810

Job market projections for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors

BLS projections suggest a favorable job market for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. According to the Bureau, demand for these professionals is expected to grow by 27 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average for all occupations nationally. An emerging recovery-focused criminal justice system may help fuel this demand, as might growing public knowledge and acceptance of substance abuse recovery programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the following states project the fastest growth in demand for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors between 2008 and 2018 (careerinfonet.org, 2011):

  • Arkansas (45 percent)
  • Rhode Island (31 percent)
  • Virginia (31 percent)

Wherever you work, and wherever you are in your career, you always have the option of brushing up your resume with additional training, either through substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor schools or through professional certification programs.

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