An addiction counselor is a mental health professional who specializes in helping patients with addictions. These counselors can work in private practice, as part of substance abuse clinics, in group practices, and in hospital settings, helping patients with a range of issues. To become an addiction counselor, someone must generally complete a training program which includes familiarization with chemical dependence, psychology, legal issues, and various treatments available to people struggling with addictions.
Many people think of drug dependence on substances like heroin when they hear the word “addiction,” but addiction counselors also work with people who are addicted to gambling, shopping, and other activities. Addiction counselors handle patients with dependencies on a wide variety of substances as well, not necessarily just illegal drugs. For example, an addiction counselor might help someone quit smoking or drinking, or assist patients with dependence on pharmaceuticals, including pharmaceuticals acquired legally by prescription.
Some addiction counselors choose to specialize in a particular area of interest, while others cover a range of addictions. In all cases, addiction counselors meet with patients in private and group settings to provide therapy, talk about ongoing issues, and develop treatment plans. Addiction counselors can also work with family members and facilitate family communication, in addition to running addiction programs which can range from residential facilities for treatment to community meetings held to help people cope with addiction.
Every addiction counselor has a unique approach to treatment, which is usually tailored to the needs of the patient. Many addiction counselors believe that addictions cannot be cured, but only managed, and treatment is focused on accepting this and providing patients with tools to manage addiction. Addiction counselors can provide referrals to other health care providers who may help an addicted person deal with health issues, and they can also work as part of a patient care team.
Addiction counseling can be very demanding. Transference can be a problem for many health care professionals, and in the case of addiction counseling, a patient may turn a dependence on a substance or activity into a dependence on an addiction counselor. While addiction counselors need to be able to help their patients, they must also be able to obtain professional distance.
This kind of work requires empathy, patience, and a high commitment to confidentiality. Addiction counselors must establish trusting relationships with their clients, and adhere to very high ethical standards. Many belong to professional organizations which offer certification to addiction counselors along with continuing education opportunities which keep people informed about developments in the field and topics of interest.