It’s no secret that America has a deadly substance abuse and addiction problem. Between September 2020 and September 2021, more than 104,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. In 2022, it’s nearing a million Americans and will probably hit that number in 2023. The discussion on addiction and recovery in modern America has a long history, sometimes successful, sometimes not.
While there are many types of modern addictions, substance and alcohol abuse receives the majority of society’s attention.
Substance addiction has been an issue in civilization since ancient times when people overly indulged on natural opiates such as those found in poppy plants. Early Egyptians consumed alcohol and reached severe intoxication levels. In the early days of U.S. patent medicines, most of those household “cures” contained the highly addictive opiate laudanum. Native Americans used peyote during spiritual rituals, and the popular soft drink Coca-Cola derived its name from the cocaine used in the original recipe (eliminated early in the 20th century).
It’s not unusual for wounded soldiers returning from wars dependent or becoming dependent on pain medications. In the 1950s, women were commonly prescribed and subsequently became addicted to anti-depressants.
The modern discussion of addiction in America can be traced to President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971. That campaign increased federal funding for anti-drug agencies but did little to stem the sale of illegal drugs. In 1980, when asked what to say when offered drugs, First Lady Nancy Reagan famously answered, “Just say no,” which eventually became a punchline for late-night comedians. In 1978, Former First Lady Betty Ford openly addressed her alcoholism and drug addiction and brought national attention and understanding of recovery (the Betty Ford Clinic opened in 1982.)
The federal government’s publicity started decades of scientific study, which in turn, opened avenues of evidence-based research in treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation from addiction and addictive behaviors.
Now, in the 21st century, according to the National Library of Medicine, 3 million Americans suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD), and the figure is at a staggering 16 million worldwide.
When prescribed and used correctly, opioids can be remarkably effective pain treatment. Still, with increased access to illegal drugs, the opioid crisis is severe enough that local, state, and federal governments are enacting legislation in an attempt to reduce dependency.
However, substance abuse isn’t the only American addiction.
What Is Addiction?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) explains addiction as “… a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” Scientific research provides a better understanding of how addiction affects the brain and helps in the development of treatment and recovery options.
We generally think of alcohol, drug, or tobacco abuse when we think of addiction. However, people can also become severely addicted to food, sex, shopping, gambling, the internet, and/or video gaming. There are several types of addictions, but three general categories can be considered:
|Substance Abuse||physical dependence on chemicals (alcohol, drugs, etc.)|
|Impulse Addiction||inability to control actions and emotions|
|Behavioral Addiction||specific behavioral actions (shopping, gaming, gambling, etc.)|
Gambling disorders (GD) are responsible for over $100 billion in annual betting losses (The Economist). Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) affects up to 16% of Americans (The American Journal of Psychiatry). Nearly a third of U.S. citizens admit to having an addiction to food. 14.5 million Americans have an addiction to alcohol (National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), and 30.8 million Americans are reliant on tobacco products (Centers for Disease Control).
What is Recovery?
“Recovery is a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential” (The National Institute of Drug Abuse).
Substance addiction can be identified in physical signs such as tremors, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, behavioral changes, etc. Behavioral addiction (shopping, gaming, gambling, etc.) can present as changes in mood, withdrawal and isolation, inability to stop behaviors, and more adverse actions.
Depending on the addiction, there are various types of recovery approaches. Support programs, such as chronic care management (drug and alcohol dependencies), recreational and social activities (that don’t involve alcohol or drugs), consortiums of community resources providing support through various agencies, and others.
Among the treatment modalities for addiction recovery are:
|Detox||Sometimes is medically assisted for safety|
Used in conjunction with behavioral therapies
|Behavioral Therapy||Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and/or|
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)
|12-Step Facilitation||Type of group therapy (think Alcoholic Anonymous)|
|Contingency Management (CM)||Rewards for positive behavior|
|Medication||Used in conjunction with behavioral therapies|
Why Earn Your Master’s Online?
More colleges and universities have added their campus programs to online platforms and widened their academic offerings. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you probably need to work. You may have family obligations. You want to quickly advance your career. An accredited online degree may be the answer you’ve been looking for.
Online coursework is identical to the classes taken by students in-person and taught by the same faculty but with greater scheduling flexibility. Online degrees are frequently accelerated and designed for shorter terms allowing you to earn the degree in less time. Less time in school also saves you money on tuition and other costs such as transportation, food, and housing.
Employers have begun to recognize the benefits of supporting employees seeking a degree online as it causes minimal disruption to their work assignments and tends to improve employee morale and loyalty. Many employers even offer tuition assistance as part of the overall benefits package, especially if the degree is related to your job.
How Do You Become an Addiction and Recovery Counselor?
National statistics make it clear there’s a need for professionals trained in Addiction and Recovery. There are various requirements for this career, but you at least need a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling for entry-level careers.
If your career goal is to become a mental health counselor with a concentration in substance abuse, addiction, and recovery, you’ll need at least a master’s degree and the completion of an internship or practicum. Depending on your state, you may also need to hold a license.
What’s Taught in an Online Master’s Addictions Program?
Online graduate programs are designed for working adults, or non-traditional students, who need flexibility in scheduling but want to advance their educational credentials.
Look for universities and colleges offering online degree programs that hold regional accreditation from Department of Education-approved regional agencies, such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) or Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), or others.
Most Master’s in Addiction and Recovery programs are delivered through universities and colleges’ psychology departments and hold National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) accreditation. Programs typically are 30-36 credit hours in length and can be completed in 12-24 months, depending on full or part-time enrollment.
The curriculum will vary by school, but foundational courses can include classes in:
|Individual and Group Counseling||Assessment and Treatment Modalities|
|Addiction Theory||Communication Skills|
|Capstone Project||Practicum Experience|
Traditionally, classes in psychopharmacology, family therapy, clinical management, behavioral theories and intervention, crisis management, cultural and social influences, research methods, etc., are part of quality curriculum offerings.
Is This a Good Career Choice?
If you consider that in 2021, 20.4 million Americans were diagnosed with Substance Use Disorders (SUD)(National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and add to that figure the friends and family members of addicts, that 20.4 million people become nearly 40 million Americans directly affected by addiction. That’s just substance addiction alone.
There are only an estimated 67,848 counselors trained in addiction and rehabilitation in the U.S. (Zippia.com). Currently, this is a female-dominated profession with a 65% ratio of professional women, and the average age of a counselor is 38 years old. Among the states with the highest employment in this career are New York, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Salaries in these states range from $49,480 to $59,790 annually.
Professionals trained in addiction and recovery are, and will always be, in great demand (only 10-11% of addicts receive any treatment.) Clearly, there are more addicts than trained professionals to help them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that job growth for counselors trained in Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorders, and Mental Health is expected to grow at 23%, which is much faster than all other occupations over the next ten years. U.S. News and World Report cites this career as having a low 4% unemployment rate.
Salaries for Master’s Prepared Addiction and Recovery Counselors
The BLS estimates the average salary for a bachelor’s prepared addiction counselor is $48,520 ($23.33 per hour), with job opportunities in residential and outpatient treatment centers, hospitals, as well as individual and family centers. Depending on where you live and your qualifications and certifications, Indeed.com suggest these professionals can earn between $45k-$80k.
U.S. News and World Report rates the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor’s career #3 in its Best Social Services Jobs and #34 in the nation’s Top 100 Best Jobs. Salaries, according to the report, have risen from around $40k to over $51-$52k during the period from 2012-2020.
Among the highest-paying states for Substance Abuse and Addiction Counselors, according to the BLS, are Alaska, D.C., Rhode Island, Utah, and New Jersey, with average mean salaries between $63k-$66k.
Professional Counseling Careers
According to the BLS, the largest employers of trained behavioral disorder, mental health, and substance abuse counselors are in residential mental health and substance abuse treatment centers (9%), outpatient centers (19%), hospitals, and health systems (10%), individual and family services and practices (15%), and government agencies and services (8%). Careers can be found in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
|Licensed Addiction Counselor||Certified Addiction Drug & Alcohol Counselor|
|School Counselor||Rehab Facility Administrator|
|Inpatient & Outpatient Therapist||Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor|
|Correctional Treatment Specialist||Social and Community Service Manager|
Regardless of your school choice, there are standard things you should consider in a program. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive explanation but it should provide you with a sense of what graduate schools require.
First, you’ll need to hold a bachelor’s degree from a college or university that holds regional accreditation.
Programs may require an undergraduate degree in psychology or education, but that’s not always the case. Admission to programs varies depending on their academic policies. Most programs will also accept undergraduate degrees in social sciences or social services. You may also be considered if you have another related undergraduate major or have pertinent work experience.
You’ll complete an online application (and application fee, typically around $30-$65), provide academic transcripts that demonstrate a minimum GPA (usually a 3.0), personal or professional recommendation letters, and an essay or personal statement of why you’re pursuing the degree. You may be asked to provide a resume or curriculum vitae as well.
Graduate school admission officers are on staff to answer any questions you have about the application. It’s also a good idea to make direct contact with the program director. This will accomplish two things: let you learn more about the online program and how it can help you meet your ultimate goals and establish a relationship that can come in handy.
There’s a growing trend of colleges and universities waiving GRE or MAT test scores. Don’t take it for granted and you’ll want to verify the test policies for the schools you’re interested in attending.
Deadlines are critical. This can’t be stressed enough.
You’ll need to be aware that graduate programs and colleges/universities’ deadlines aren’t always the same. Departmental and program admission deadlines may very well come before the graduate school application deadline.
Make sure you know if you need to apply to the graduate program before making an application to the university’s graduate school. Timing of your application(s) is crucial in this regard.
It’s a general rule of thumb that you’ll need to accept the graduate school admission offer no later than April 15th.
Think you’re not going to need or qualify for federal assistance? You’ll want to complete and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) anyway.
Graduate schools and programs will rely on FAFSA® information to determine if you qualify for any university, state, or federal need-based loans. Departments offering graduate scholarships or grants will require Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to determine if you should be awarded funds.
Currently employed? You don’t want to overlook the educational assistance your employer may provide as part of your benefits package. It’s becoming common for employers to look at educational benefits as employee incentives for career advancement or loyalty. Be certain to talk with your supervisor or Human Resources representative to find out what your employer may offer in tuition assistance, reimbursement, or other educational funding.
Licensure and Certifications
Depending on your degree and concentration, you could become a clinical or non-clinical practitioner. Either track will at least require certification, and clinical practice will probably require licensure, depending on where you plan to practice. Some of the certifications/licenses may include:
LISAC – Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor: Requires a master’s degree in a behavioral-health related field, an active LASAC credential, and 1600 hours of supervised work experience that includes 100 hours of clinical supervision.
LASAC – Licensed Associate Substance Abuse Counselor: Requires a master’s degree in a behavioral-health-related field (such as the master’s in addiction psychology) and a passing score on an advanced substance abuse licensure exam administered by the IC&RC, NAADAC or NBCC. Counselors at this level cannot practice independently and must be supervised by a LISAC.
International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC): Demonstrates mastery of evidence-based practices, promotes public protection and establishes standards and exams required for certification.
NCAC – National Certified Addiction Counselor: Voluntary national and international certification requires current credential as a Substance Use Disorders/Addiction Counselor or Professional Counselor
MAC – Master Addiction Counselor: Requires a master’s in Substance Use Disorders/Addiction and current credential or license. Passing exam scores in the MAC through National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP)
National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) provides individual program accreditation based on a set of quality standards.
This is the largest professional organization in this field and represents over 100,000 addiction educators and counselors, and other professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada. The organization provides training, education, and certification for addiction professionals and holds annual national conventions. Individual states may also have NAADAC-affiliated organizations for alcoholism and drug abuse counselors.
The International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors is an offshoot of the American Counseling Association is an organization specially created for master’s level professionals.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) although primarily for physicians allows for associate membership for qualifying master’s level professionals.
The American Society of Addiction Psychology is one of the American Psychological Association divisions providing support and resources for psychology students and psychologists.
American Mental Health Counselors Association provides career development support, updated news and trends in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, federal and national advocacy, continuing education opportunities, and more.
Online Addiction Counseling Master’s Degree Programs
The following programs are presented in alphabetical order and are not formally ranked. Each program is accredited and meets College Consensus standards of quality and reputability.
Arizona State University
ASU is at the forefront of offering quality online degree programs. This online Master of Science in Addiction Psychology is part of that tradition. Offering 15 accelerated 7.5-week courses, this program meets the educational requirements for certification on national and state levels. The program includes 45 hours of coursework, a practicum, and an applied project. The curriculum covers content areas required for licensure not only in Arizona but in most other states as well. Program faculty include Fulbright American Scholars, Nobel Laureates, and Guggenheim Fellows. ASU is currently working to obtain NASAC and NAADAC certifications.
Using the best evidence-based practices, the online MS in Addiction Counseling from Drexel University will prepare you to clinically assess and treat clients, become a case manager, and offer counseling services. It will also prepare you to sit for Masters Addictions Counselor (MAC) or Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (AADC) certification exams. The program is divided into four 10-week quarters and has optional supervised addictions practicum experiences. Classes include studies in ethics, relapse prevention, group dynamics, family addictions, and more.
Grand Canyon University
Through GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, you’ll earn a Master’s in Addiction Counseling in 36 credit hours (the university accepts up to 12 applicable graduate transfer hours). The National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) accredited program includes coursework and practicum experience. The curriculum will enhance your communication and critical thinking skills. You’ll study theories, group counseling, addictions, psychopharmacology, chemical dependency, and more. This program qualifies you to pursue licensure (depending on your state’s requirements.)
Virginia’s Liberty University (est. 1971 by Rev. Jerry Falwell) awards a Master of Arts in Addiction Counseling that’s 100% online. You can complete the degree in about 24 months, and the 48-credit-hour program is offered in accelerated, 8-week classes. Liberty University has a very generous transfer policy and can accept up to 24 graduate transfer hours. The curriculum includes a practicum experience along with studies in assessment techniques, counseling theories, along with abuse recovery. Niche ranks Liberty in its top 5 “Best Online Colleges in America” in 2022.
Mid-America Christian University
This is a Master of Science in Counseling that has an emphasis on addiction and substance abuse offered from one of Niche’s “Best Online Colleges in America.” Courses are in 6-week periods, allowing you to focus on one class at a time. The curriculum includes studies in counseling core courses, addiction-specific topics in theories, psychotherapy, marriage, and family addiction counseling, as well as a practicum. As an online student, you may be able to earn up to 30 credits for your life experiences, so be sure to talk with an admission advisor. On graduation, you’ll be eligible to seek LADC licensure in Oklahoma.
Ottawa University has a physical presence in Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, and online. Ottawa University has an MS in Addiction Counseling that holds National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) accreditation. This curriculum meets the required elements for licensure and certification for most states The program requires 36 credit hours covering theory, family counseling, assessment and treatment, law and ethics, and a practicum, etc. Courses are offered in accelerated 8-week formats. Ottawa University was founded in 1865 by Baptist missionaries who named it after the Ottawa Indian Tribe.
University of the Cumberlands
You can earn an online Master’s in Addiction Studies from this Kentucky school that will prepare you for special licensure in Kentucky as a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor. You’ll also be prepared for a variety of careers working with patients and families dealing with addiction. This 30-credit hour curriculum examines screening and assessment, family addiction therapy, clinical management, collaboration, and referral, as well as ethical responsibilities. The program recommends you check with your state’s licensing board to determine if this program will qualify. The university offers an affordable $400 per credit tuition regardless of your residency status and a substantial military tuition discount for active personnel.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Virginia Commonwealth University’s MS in Addiction Studies is a unique, international addiction program collaboration through VCU’s School of Medicine, the University of Adelaide, and King’s College London. The program design is to present a cross-cultural perspective of addiction prevention, treatment, and addiction research. The 36-credit hour curriculum covers topics in pharmacotherapies, research methodologies, public issues, biological foundations of addiction, and a research project in addition. You can complete this degree in 12 months of full-time study or 24 months of attending part-time. VCU is recognized by Forbes in its “Top Colleges 2022.”
West Virginia University
If you’re wanting to work as a Mental Health Counselor or Rehabilitation Counselor, you’ll want to explore this hybrid MS in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health. Available as a full-time or part-time program, the degree requires 18 asynchronous online courses for a degree total of 63 credit hours. The program does require two site visits to WVU’s Morgantown campus. Along with studies in counseling techniques, diagnosis, and treatment, ethics, and trauma counseling, you’ll also complete a counseling practicum and a supervised clinical practice. The university boasts that many of its MS graduates work in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as mental health and vocational counselors. You’re encouraged to register for a virtual information session to learn more about the program.
A Guide to Online Counseling Degrees