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Choosing The Right Substance Abuse Counselor

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

It can be a challenge to choose the right substance abuse counselor when you are surrounded by the stress of addiction, but it may be one of the most important decisions you will make in your recovery.

A substance abuse counselor is your companion through the difficult process of healing from addiction. They work closely with you to develop a treatment plan, monitor your progress, and set recovery goals. It is vital to form a positive relationship with this person.

How To Find A Substance Abuse Counselor

Before you can choose the right substance abuse counselor, it’s best to look at your options. Your insurance coverage may determine how many options you have, but if it is flexible, you could ask for recommendations from family, friends, or your doctor. Addiction counselors may operate a private practice, be part of a mental health clinic, or work in a hospital or rehabilitation center.

Information on specific counselors can often be found online. If they have a website, there may be reviews from other patients that tell how effective the counselor was in helping others. Keep in mind that one bad review can significantly affect a counselor’s overall rating, and that review could be attributed to personality differences rather than poor counseling.

Also, remember that not everyone has the same needs and not all personalities mesh. Just because a counselor was helpful to a friend does not mean they will be the right fit for you, and that’s okay.

If you believe you may have found someone that will meet your needs, speak with them on the phone or set up an initial meeting to see if you feel comfortable with them. Ask questions about how they run counseling sessions and how they will engage with you. A reputable substance abuse counselor will answer your questions to ensure you understand what they offer.

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What To Consider When Choosing A Substance Abuse Counselor

Once you meet a counselor or begin working with them, it should not take long to determine whether the relationship is helpful or not. While it is normal for counseling to be uncomfortable, it is important that you are not so uncomfortable that you refrain from being vulnerable. If you are afraid to be open with your counselor, you are unlikely to make much progress.

Do You Trust Them?

The therapeutic relationship between a counselor and client must be based on trust. For positive change to take place, you have to be open and honest about the problem. Look for a counselor that makes you feel safe, respects you as an individual, and does not pass judgement.

The best substance abuse counselors have your best interests at heart. They not only will direct therapy sessions to meet your needs, but they will also listen to your concerns and make adjustments if possible.

Are You Comfortable With Them?

The therapeutic relationship is very personal. Many people feel more comfortable partnering with someone of the same gender, opinions, and beliefs. Gender-matching is a common practice in addiction treatment that aims to optimize the client’s level of comfort.

If a counselor does not have the same core beliefs as you—be it regarding the course of your treatment, addiction, or religion—it can be difficult to build the type of relationship required to make therapeutic progress. If their personal beliefs align with yours, they can guide you through the healing process in the way that is most effective for you.

What Is Their Approach To Addiction Treatment?

Not all substance abuse counselors approach addiction in the same way. Some strictly follow the 12 steps of recovery, while others take a more holistic approach to treatment, examining the many issues surrounding substance abuse. Some include your family by helping them deal with your addiction and teaching them how to be supportive in your recovery.

You may know what type of treatment you want to receive and can search for a counselor who will provide it. However, it can be difficult to know what you need to heal from addiction, especially when you are in the midst of it. It may be more beneficial to find a counselor you trust and allow them to formulate a treatment plan based on your unique needs.

What Are Their Credentials?

A degree is not required for someone to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CDAC) in many states. Certification requires three years of supervised work experience and 300 hours of relevant secondary education. Once someone has this credential, they can apply to become a nationally certified addiction counselor (NDAC), which also offers higher levels of accreditation for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

That said, many substance abuse counselors have an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some have a master’s degree or PH.D., and some only have a high school diploma. The required education level varies between states. You may prefer a counselor with a lot of education and experience, but be careful not to sacrifice comfort for credentials.

Are They Educated In Substance Abuse And Mental Health?

Addiction is a multifaceted disease. Often, people suffer from other mental issues along with addiction. If these are left untreated, relapse is more likely to occur. A counselor who is trained in both substance abuse and mental health is able to provide a more comprehensive approach to address the whole problem.

Sometimes, mental health professionals offer substance abuse services even though they do not have training in substance abuse. A counselor who specializes in treating addiction is likely able to provide more relevant and effective guidance for your needs.

Many substance abuse counselors are in recovery themselves. Their unique experience with addiction may lend insight to your own healing process. On the other hand, someone who has gone through addiction may still struggle to remain sober, and you may prefer to work with someone who does not have these issues. There is no right or wrong choice regarding this; it is your personal preference.

Choosing The Right Addiction Treatment Program

Enrolling in an addiction treatment program gives you access to many people and resources that support your recovery. Reputable drug and alcohol rehab centers have highly trained substance abuse counselors on staff to guide you through the treatment process.

Substance abuse counseling is a foundational treatment method that is most effective when combined with a variety of therapies. Support groups, expressive arts, adventure, and behavioral therapy may be integrated into a treatment program along with individual and group counseling.

Addiction treatment programs may be outpatient (allowing a person to live at home) or inpatient (taking place at a residential facility). While outpatient programs offer a more flexible schedule, inpatient programs provide around-the-clock care and immerse people in a substance-free environment.

With constant access to your substance abuse counselor and other resources that support recovery, you may find that an inpatient addiction treatment program is your best chance for overcoming addiction. To learn more about counseling and treatment options, contact one of our specialists today.

Michigan Certification Board for Addiction Professionals - Application Instructions

NDAAC - National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)

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