Substance Abuse Counselor: A Dying Profession?

August 01 , 2022

A recent broadcast on the Morning Edition of NPR news drew our attention to the alarming scarcity of substance abuse counselors and the stark reality of a high staff turnover rate.

“There’s not enough beds”

The idea that there are not enough beds is patently false. The problem is that there are not enough substance abuse counselors available to man the beds. Approximately one out of every four drug treatment staff members leaves the job every year. That’s not just recent news; the Institute of Medicine has seen an annual shortage of substance use treatment staff for several decades.

This broadcast highlighted one of the most salient problems connected with drug treatment and recovery today. The unattractiveness of the profession is a pressing issue that needs to be pushed on both a policy and an institutional level. The drug epidemic in America seems to be growing, not decreasing: In 2014, opioid deaths hit a record level—rising 14% in one year. Between the years 2000 and 2014, deaths from drug overdoses reached half a million. Just in opioid-related deaths, there was a 200% rate increase since the year 2000. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

Where to go from here?

It’s a bleak picture, but it’s one we have to recognize. Otherwise, our system simply won’t be able to handle the influx of people needing drug treatment, as the Affordable Care Act gives many more Americans insurance and thus new access to substance abuse counselors.

What are the main factors contributing to this shortage? First off: right now, the average salary of a substance abuse counselors is $40,000. Most people with the education required to treat drug addiction will be able to find jobs that pay more and offer better benefits. The NPR broadcast showcased an experienced substance addiction counselor who went to teach at the university instead of continuing with counseling. It’s easy to see why this might happen with many of these professionals. Large caseloads, high demands, and emotional exhaustion are all contributing factors that lead to burnout for many substance abuse counselors. Providing supervision, creating a supportive work environment, and providing rewards for strong job performance help with overall job satisfaction and retention.

It is a complicated issue steeped in decades of our history, but the time to act is always now. If we’re serious about eradicating this problem, we need to think on multiple levels: Can the state pay more or offer other incentives to turn drug treatment into a better profession? How can policies on drug control be implemented to discourage over-prescription and over-use of narcotic drugs? What kinds of models or centers are practical and accessible for every-day people who are struggling with addiction?

Drugs destroy the lives of users—and just as often, their loved ones as well. It is imperative that we seek solutions to this pervasive issue with urgency.