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5 Challenges of Being a Substance Abuse Counselor

It’s still hard for people to talk about addiction recovery without judgment or stigma. However, with increased awareness of mental health issues, more people are starting the dialogue surrounding addiction recovery. Unfortunately, addiction can often be difficult to treat due to these entrenched prejudices—which is why counselors play such an important role in helping those affected get back on their feet and lead healthy lives.  

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Substance abuse counselors have firsthand knowledge of the need for more support and the challenges involved in helping people recover from addiction, but this doesn’t mean it’s always easy for them. 

Struggles Substance Abuse Counselors Face

Here are five common challenges counselors have to deal with:

  1. Uncooperative patients

There are several reasons a patient may not be cooperative. For example, they may not want to admit that they have a problem or that it is affecting them and their family. They might also have an untreated mental illness that complicates treatment and makes them less likely to change their behavior on their own.

Many people with severe mental health issues experience complications due to substance abuse. In fact, 25% of adults with mental health problems like depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia, concurrently deal with addiction. 

  1. Patient relapse

One of the most common challenges that counselors face in their work is helping patients avoid and handle relapse. One reason is that addiction affects many aspects of people’s lives, and is in turn vulnerable to outside influences. People need a robust treatment plan with support and strategies to help them make healthier choices. Also, if a client’s family, friends, and circumstances do not support their sobriety, there is a high chance of relapse. 

Recent numbers show that over 85% of individuals relapse and use drugs within a year post-treatment. 

  1. Removing bias and judgment

Counselors are humans, too, and prone to making assumptions about people. Each of us have our own values and beliefs, but when helping others is what your job is all about, you must learn to leave your personal opinions at the door. Many people in treatment have led difficult lives, often without advantages or support that some take for granted. Therapy is about helping the person move forward from where they are now. If that means examining the decisions they made along the way—and continue to make during their recovery—this must be done respectfully and without judgment.

It’s also important to remember that not every approach works for every client, so bias toward one type of treatment (private or group sessions, medication or not) over another is to be avoided.

Don’t use labels. This is a big one, and it’s imperative to avoid doing this as a substance abuse counselor. If you want to help someone, don’t make assumptions about their life or situation based on characteristics such as gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even age. These things do not indicate whether someone will be successful in changing their behavior. Instead, focus on their behavior and how they’re coping with it.

  1. Ethical concerns

Confidentiality is one of the main ethical concerns of working as a substance abuse counselor. In general, state laws govern drug treatment. However, federal laws protect the privacy of those undergoing therapy. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states the two primary laws that cover substance abuse: the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records Privacy Law. As a professional, you must follow all laws and regulations regarding patient care and safety. 

It’s essential to keep your patient’s best interests in mind while still fulfilling your ethical responsibilities as a counselor. In extreme and rare circumstances, if you have evidence that someone has committed a crime or is an immediate danger to themselves or others, then you may be required by law to report this information.

  1. Lack of support from the system

There is no one resource for addiction support. Programs can be offered through schools, hospitals, the military, and the criminal justice system—and all have their own policies and procedures. Consequently, there is no one source of funding, and mental health support systems tend to be perpetually short on resources for counselors working with clients. Funding is also subject to yearly budget reassessments, and is therefore unreliable.

There is no question that there is a deep need for substance abuse support. However, only a few colleges offer substance abuse counseling programs, so it’s crucial for students who want to become certified counselors to find reputable schools to earn their degrees. 

The substance abuse counseling field is growing rapidly, and the demand for qualified professionals will continue to increase. This is due to several factors. Some of these are: 

  • The growing number of elderly Americans who use prescription drugs.
  • The increase in prescription drug abuse by teenagers and young adults.
  • The prevalence of illegal drug use in many parts of the country.
  • The rising number of people who are incarcerated and need treatment upon release. 
  • The increased awareness of the effects of substance abuse, especially among parents and other caregivers.

Addressing the Challenges

Substance abuse counselors are in a unique position to help patients with addiction. As the only professionals trained to recognize and treat substance abuse, they have an opportunity to help prevent relapse, maintain recovery, and reduce the impact of addiction on people’s lives. It can be difficult work, but it has its rewards. If you want to help, becoming a substance abuse counselor could be a solid career choice. 

Explore our Programs to learn how HCI College can help you earn a job-ready degree. 

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