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What Is the Difference Between a Substance Abuse Counselor and a Therapist?

Substance abuse has the capacity to destroy lives, and approximately half of American families have experienced challenges caused by substance use and addiction. For people dealing with a substance abuse disorder, finding help is essential. 

Those who wish to build a career supporting people with substance abuse disorders need to consider where they would like to fit into the recovery process and where their skills are best applied. The most common professional choices for those seeking a career in this field are as a therapist or as a substance abuse counselor. While there are some aspects of these jobs that overlap, each avenue allows you to help substance abuse victims in different ways. 

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What Does a Substance Abuse Counselor Do?

A substance abuse counselor, like any other counselor or therapist, provides assistance and support to individuals seeking to change their behavior. This could be for a person with an eating disorder, alcoholism, or a drug addiction. A substance abuse counselor spends time with their patients to understand the causes of their issues and develop actionable strategies to help them modify their behavior for the better. 

Where traditional mental health therapy is often open-ended and exploratory, the work that substance abuse counselors do is more concrete and goal-oriented from the beginning of their relationship with the patient. Therapists spend a significant amount of time with the patient to examine the nuances of their situation. However, substance abuse counselors rarely have that luxury. Substance abuse issues can cause severe financial, legal, and physical harm if left untreated. As a result, substance abuse counselors immediately focus on developing a plan of action once a patient reaches out to them. This may include providing guidance for families, leading group therapy, and discussing coping mechanisms and treatment plans. 

If you wish to explore a career as a substance abuse counselor, you should attain a degree in a field such as substance abuse counseling or social work. In many states, licenses are given out to substance abuse counselors, but other states choose to simply certify them. This can make it easier for you to find opportunities in a wide variety of settings such as hospitals, governments, or substance abuse centers. Once you feel that you have the right experience, you can explore the option of furthering your education and opening a private practice specializing in a type of substance abuse that you feel most confident tackling. 

What Does a Therapist Do?

Therapists are licensed medical professionals who support their patients through mental health issues. Some therapists work in a consulting or clinical research setting, while others work in the more traditional setting of providing in-person or online therapy directly to patients. Due to the high demand for mental health services in a variety of environments, therapists can often choose to work in either general therapy in an office, or in a specialized setting such as a military base, a school, or a university. Therapists in all these settings take the time to explore the nuances of a patient’s mental health and provide them with short- and long-term advice to help them understand and overcome their challenges. 

People planning to be a therapist should know that they will need a master’s degree and a license from their state board to practice psychotherapy in their state. 

Which Is the Right Career for You?

If you wish to enter either of these professions, considering why you are interested can help you make the right choice. Before making a decision that will impact a significant part of your life, you should ask yourself the following questions: 

Do You Need Financial Aid?

Pursuing further education can be a major financial decision for many Americans. Not every student has the means to pay for tuition outright. However, it has never been easier to receive  financial assistance. The student financial aid acceptance rate has risen steadily in the past couple of decades and students are now able to apply for a variety of financial aid programs to achieve their dreams. 

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Do You Plan to Continue Your Education After Your First Degree?

Some students join a degree program to improve their chances of getting a job or to increase the opportunities available to them. However, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree is simply not enough for some career paths. A substance abuse counselor could receive a license to practice without a master’s degree, but this is a non-negotiable qualification for therapists in the U.S. 

Is There a Specific Type of Support That You Would Like to Provide to Your Patients?

Like any career in the medical industry, the decision to specialize in a certain field can be a personal one. Perhaps you have a family member or friend who has suffered as a result of a substance abuse disorder or other mental health issue and have chosen to work in the field as a result of that. Other people may have the personality and desire to help others, and wish to provide this kind of care to make a difference in the world.

Therapists and substance abuse counselors deal with extremely challenging issues and have highly stressful jobs. It’s important that you have the motivation and the qualities needed to succeed as a mental health professional, regardless of your chosen specialization. 

In conclusion, while there may be some overlap between the roles of a substance abuse counselor and a therapist, there are also distinct differences. Ultimately, the most important thing is to find a career that is a good fit for your needs, and to become a professional who can provide the support and guidance necessary for your patients’ recovery and overall well-being.

Substance Abuse Counseling Program at HCI College

Explore the programs at HCI College for more information on courses you can take that will give you the most successful career in allied health care. 

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