UC Professor: It’s a Perfect Time to Pursue a Career in Substance Abuse Counseling

University of Cincinnati

An interview with Professor George Richardson, Coordinator for the Substance Abuse Counseling Program at University of Cincinnati

This sponsored content is produced for the University of Cincinnati Online Substance Abuse Counseling Program by the Treatment Magazine Content Studio.

By Erin Gilday, Treatment Magazine Content Studio

TreatmentMagazine.com recently had the pleasure of sitting down with George B. Richardson, PhD, NCC, Associate Professor of Counseling at University of Cincinnati, to get the inside scoop on what it looks like to pursue a career in substance abuse counseling today. 

George B. Richardson

As the Coordinator for the Substance Abuse Counseling Program in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services at the U of C, Professor Richardson oversees three programs at the university: a six-course Substance Abuse Prevention Certificate, a one-year Substance Abuse Counseling Certificate, and a two-to-four-year online Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling. Each program represents a unique opportunity to train up in this high-demand profession.

In our discussion, Professor Richardson touches on how the pandemic created a soaring demand for substance abuse counselors, how students can “fast track” their way into this growing field and what personal and professional qualities separate the good substance abuse counselors from the great ones. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in this exciting field, read on for Professor Richardson’s valuable insight into this remarkably important work.  

Q: According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to grow 25% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Beyond the rise in need for counselors as a consequence of the increased isolation and rate of U.S. overdoses due to COVID, why do you think the need for substance misuse counselors is growing so rapidly?

A: I think the impact of COVID-19 will continue to become clearer as more national data collected after the start of the pandemic becomes available. There seems to be at least a subset of the population reporting an increase in substance use. People are more stressed and experiencing more symptoms of anxiety, increases which could certainly exacerbate substance use. You mentioned overdoses, and indeed there is a marked increase in overdose deaths—last year the number of such deaths exceeded 90,000, representing the highest number ever recorded over 12 months and a 30% rise since 2019. Another factor is increased access to treatment. While overdoses appear to have been exacerbated by reductions in access to harm reduction, some facets of treatment became more accessible because of the increased uptake of telehealth, and as mutual aid groups transitioned to online platforms. The Affordable Care Act had also broadened coverage. These factors likely combine with others to help account for some of the occupational growth.

Aside from earning the CDCA early, we recommend that students read the program handbook closely, peruse the resources available in our online community and engage with faculty and other students.”

Professor George B. Richardson, University of Cincinnati

Q: How can students who enter your program maximize their opportunities while there to secure a rewarding career when they graduate?

A: At the start of the program, we recommend that students earn entry-level state certification or licensure as soon as possible. In Ohio, for instance, this is the chemical dependency counselor assistant (CDCA) certification. Once students earn their CDCA, they can obtain entry-level employment and earn hours toward licensure. The CDCA also sets them up well for securing an internship, which is a program requirement that is satisfied in the final year of the program when students are seniors. The internship provides an opportunity not only to hone their clinical skills out in the field, but also for networking and identification of job opportunities. Aside from earning the CDCA early, we recommend that students read the program handbook closely, peruse the resources available in our online community and engage with faculty and other students; they shouldn’t hesitate to ask any questions they might have!

UC’s program gives students the tools they need to succeed in addiction treatment.

Q: What qualities or approaches—either life experiences or character traits or areas of substance use expertise—do you think are most closely linked to students’ success following their studies at UC?

A: There seem to be lots of combinations of experiences and traits that can add up to increase student success. Many students have had some experiences with substance use disorder (SUD), whether personally or in their family or friendship networks. But the desire to help people who are experiencing these problems can emerge as students pursuing other majors take our courses as electives, or as they engage in reading outside their classes. Conscientiousness (e.g., staying organized) does go a long way. Optimism seems to be another important trait; successful students hope they can help others and sustain realistic expectations for change. Curiosity is big, too. Students who are excited to explore the literature are going to experience more growth in their understanding of etiology and treatment.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in entering this counseling field, and how does the UC program help graduates work through them—during school and maybe even after they graduate?

A: This field can be stressful, and there are losses. So we offer courses in stress management and in ethics, to try to help students become adept in setting boundaries to maintain space between their personal and professional lives. We hope this coursework helps our graduates avoid burnout, which is a big challenge. We also have a capstone course that covers the evidentiary basis for the core competencies in the field (e.g., clinical evaluation, treatment planning). Students interview agency personnel and then analyze site implementation of these competencies. One of our hopes is that these activities provide students with, in part, a solid foundation from which they can evaluate potential employers. Finding a site that provides adequate administrative and clinical supervision, and engages in evidence-based practice and so on can be a huge boon.

Students are able to tailor the program to their interests and needs by selecting elective courses that allow them to specialize, and by selecting internship sites representative of settings in which they would like to be employed.”

—Professor George B. Richardson

Q: How do you prepare your students to work in different career settings using their substance abuse counseling education?

A: Students are able to tailor the program to their interests and needs by selecting elective courses that allow them to specialize, and by selecting internship sites representative of settings in which they would like to be employed. Moreover, we support student efforts to seek out non-clinical opportunities (e.g., in research) within and outside the program. For instance, this year one of our students won a competitive National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Summer Research Internship. Our curriculum also enables students to pursue graduate studies in fields such as mental health counseling, social work, behavioral analysis and even nursing. Many of our students have pursued graduate training in these areas at University of Cincinnati, and at other great schools, too. In fact, one of my PhD students is a 2019 graduate of our Substance Abuse Counseling Program—some like the program enough that they really want to stick around!

There’s never been a better time to gain the education you need to help combat our nation’s addiction crisis on the frontlines. University of Cincinnati works with students by maintaining transfer-friendly policies and a robust financial aid program. From full-time to part-time, online and in-person options, it’s likely that there’s a pathway at University of Cincinnati that’s right for you. Learn more about how University of Cincinnati’s Substance Abuse Counseling Program prepares students like you for careers in substance abuse counseling.