When you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, many say "firefighter," "doctor," or "police officer." Not many say "addictions counselor." Yet this social services profession is as rewarding and challenging career choice as any of the above.
Know your stuff
But before you race out and apply to an addictions counseling program, you need to know some things. Like, what exactly do addictions counselors treat? An addiction is the compulsive use of a substance or behaviour despite the resulting negative consequences. In other words, it's a type of habit that is used to make a person feel good, even though it harms them in some way.
When most people think of addictions, they think of alcohol and drug abuse. It's only on second thought that other addictions come to mind. Most addictions fit into one of two categories: substance abuse or abuse involving activities.
Substance abuse is the addiction to something that you take into your body to change the way you feel. This includes abuse of all types of alcohol, drugs (including prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit drugs), inhalants or solvents (known as "sniffing" or "huffing), and tobacco. The health risks of substance abuse are obvious but the risk for personal, financial, and social harm is just as deadly.
Then there are many activities that most people engage in every day and think of as harmless, such as eating, exercising, shopping, using the Internet, working, having sex, and gambling. But when a person does these activities too much - to the point where it interferes with healthy living and results in significant stress to themselves and those around them - it's an addiction.
Addictions are incredibly difficult to break and if someone does try to break the habit, they usually struggle with withdrawal symptoms and end up abusing again. So this is where addiction counselors come in - they help addicts heal from the dependency on a substance or activity. This healing can mean helping the person break a habit that is in their mind (psychological), in their body (physiological), or both. The causes of addiction are varied and it is the job of the addictions counselor to understand all of these factors when treating a client.
"It can be a very rewarding field," says Debora Abood, a training facilitator at Tillicum Haus Native Friendship Centre, that houses both an addictions treatment centre and an addictions counselor training program. "It can also be very stressful."
For many counselors, the decision to work in the field of addictions treatment comes from their own experiences. Some have been addicts themselves while others have had to deal with the addictions of loved ones.
Ask Colleen Hillock and she'll tell you that her story sounds the same.
"I was faced with the disease of alcoholism from very early on," says Hillock. "As I became older, I was fascinated by how little was known about addiction in the professional world."
Hillock used her personal experiences to guide her career. She has been an addictions counsellor for 26 years and now, as coordinator of the Addictions Counselling Program at Medicine Hat College, she guides others on their career paths as addictions counselors.
Hillock notes that while many people come to the field with similar personal experiences, it is crucial that they have dealt with their own addictions issues before attempting to help others.
"Work on your own recovery first," she says. "Take care of your own needs so that your clients aren't [affected by them]."
"People need to ask themselves what their motivations are," agrees Abood. "If they have personal issues with misuse or abuse, they need to deal with them before they can deal with someone else's."
Do you have what it takes?
Of course, personal experiences with addiction are not a requirement for becoming an addictions counselor. However there are some qualities that are good to have if you're considering this career.
Hillock notes that an "acceptance of ignorance, poverty, alternative lifestyles, and diversity in general" are important qualities as are "humility, compassion, and the ability to ask for support and help often."
"People who have a strong sense of who they are and good self-esteem," adds Abood. "You have to be willing to learn, to exercise patience, and have clear boundaries."
Do you think you have what it takes to be an addictions counselor? Training is key and varies from full university degree programs to shorter-term diploma courses. The prerequisites vary too: some require a Grade 12 or equivalent while others require prior post-secondary education. Once trained, addictions counselors can choose to work