By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
The need for qualified drug counselors continues to grow.
The growing opioid epidemic has highlighted the need for more drug treatment. So has the use of other drugs, methamphetamine, the so-called bath salts, and a whole host of new substances which continue to grow. The need for treatment among the older generation is at an all-time high as many baby boomers have continued to use their drug of choice into their retirement years. While the increasing problem with hard drugs gets a lot of media attention, we can’t forget that the two legal drugs, nicotine and alcohol remain huge killers. In medical settings, most of the patients have illnesses caused by or made worse by the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.
There are several reasons why you might want to become a drug and alcohol counselor. For over ten years now I’ve taught classes in counseling those with substance use disorders. This week another class is starting. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to talk to you about some of the things drug counselors learn. Let’s begin today with reasons you might want to become a drug counselor and why your reason might help or hinder you in becoming a good drug counselor.
The field of drug counseling continues to evolve. The laws and regulations vary from place to place, and so do the names given to drug counselors. Counselors in this field are sometimes called substance abuse counselors, substance use disorder counselors, drug and alcohol counselors, or AOD counselors which stands for alcohol and other drug counselors.
This field used to separate alcoholics from drug addicts and provide two different kinds of treatment. Today it’s rare to find treatment programs where the two issues are disconnected. People with alcohol only problems usually end up in a drunk driver program or self-help groups such as AA. People with drug problems go to drug programs even though they often also have alcohol problems.
If you are in recovery, you may want to become a drug counselor.
Today’s substance abuse counseling programs mainly grew out of the alumni from drug programs and people who had attended 12 step groups. If you’re in recovery yourself, you may want to give back. The good part about this is that you probably have a lot of knowledge about the process of addiction. Many of my students are former alcoholics or addicts now in recovery. I tell the class, only half-joking, that many of you have done “extensive field research” on drugs and alcohol.
If you’re a recovering person, you probably know a lot about the 12 steps. While a lot of research is being done about what works and doesn’t work in the substance use disorder field, working the 12 steps and attending self-help groups continues to be a significant component of most recovery programs.
The downside to being a recovering person is that you may struggle with the academic, professional part of the curriculum. People in recovery who rushed too rapidly into becoming drug counselors put themselves at risk for relapse. For recovering person to work in the treatment field, they need to not only know the disease of addiction, but they also need to understand the process of recovery. If you’re in early recovery give yourself plenty of time to get used to your new sobriety before beginning to work in the field, otherwise you can put yourself at risk of relapse.
You may have had a family member or friend with an addiction problem.
Many people come into the field because they lost a family member or close friend to the diseases of addiction. I’ve seen some very effective counselors who have not themselves been addicts but have grown up in a home with an addicted parent or partner. If you’ve lost a child to addiction, death, or incarceration, that can be an exceptionally strong motivation to work in the field.
The caution for family members is like the one for recovering people. Make sure you are fully recovered from your experiences of living with an addicted person. Don’t expect to work out your own problems by working with addicts. Living with an addicted person can cause severe emotional trauma. You need to be fully recovered from that trauma if you plan to do this kind of work. A number of my drug counseling students were family members of addicts. They pretty much all told me they benefited by taking the classes. Many however decided they needed to work on themselves rather than trying to fix themselves by fixing addicts.
You have discovered a lot of the people you work with have drug problems.
No matter where you work there’s a strong possibility that many of the people you see each day have a drug problem. One survey estimated that 80% of the people in prison were drunk or high in the 24 hours before the committed the crime that led to their incarceration. VA Hospital estimated half of their hospital beds on the results of patients whose condition was caused by or made worse by alcohol. People who work in the criminal justice system or the medical field need to know about addiction and recovery.
People who work in the welfare system need to be knowledgeable about drugs, alcohol, addiction, and recovery. Many people who are unemployed have substance use issues. Among the homeless population, one drug is almost universal. It’s probably not the drug you are thinking of, the drug of choice among the homeless – is tobacco.
If you’re working in education, you need to know about drugs, alcohol and the problems they’re creating for your students. Surveys tell us that at the college level F students consume twice as much alcohol as A students. Many elementary school students begin experimenting with drugs and drinking around the third or fourth grade. They start by smoking their parent’s cigarettes or drinking their alcohol. With the shift towards legalized marijuana more and more elementary and middle school students are using marijuana. If you work with kids in any capacity part of what you should be doing will be drug prevention and early interventions.
You work in mental health and clients want to talk to you about drug problems.
There’s a substantial overlap between mental health issues and substance use disorders. If you work in a program or facility that treats mental health problems you’re seeing people with substance use disorders whether you know it or not. Please don’t say “I don’t want to work with those people.” You are. If you give off the attitude you don’t want to talk to them about their drug problems, their sex problems, or their gambling problems; they just won’t tell you the truth about those issues.
Roughly half the people with a diagnosed mental illness, abuse substances and many go on to develop substance use disorders. About 60% of the people with substance use disorders also have a mental illness. The area of working with clients with both problems, now called “dual diagnosis” used to be called “co-occurring disorders.” The most effective treatment for people with both disorders is to get them both treated at the same time and either at the same place or with two different providers who work together to coordinate care.
You would like to help “those people.”
If your motivation to become a drug counselor is because you feel sorry for people with a history of substance use disorder, I’m going to suggest, please don’t become a drug counselor. You’re likely to come across as feeling superior and looking down on them. If you want to be helpful, work with them on their other needs, housing, meals, job training, or basic literacy. Leave the drug counseling to people who will put in the time to develop the needed skills.
Stay tuned for more posts on what drug counselors do on the job and how someone would go about becoming a drug counselor. If you have questions as I move through this series of posts, please leave a comment or use the “contact me” form. I will get back to you just as quickly as my schedule allows.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!
Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
Sasquatch. Wandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.