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Become a better drug and alcohol counselor

November 17, 2008
by Pete Nielsen, ICADC, CADC II
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A counselor and clinical supervisor offers five tips for improvement

Recently as I was training a group of certified drug and alcohol counselors, I asked them to give me the definition of screening. No one was able to answer the question, although this is a fundamental counselor competency for everyone in the profession. This lack of knowledge can result in clients receiving substandard care. Many counselors do not stay up to date with the latest trends and techniques. It is necessary for counselors to stay current with knowledge, and moreover to renew their knowledge of the basic competencies of their work. Here are five tips for counselors to enhance their knowledge and skills in order to ensure their effectiveness.

1. Know diverse counseling theories and techniques. Know the difference between Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy and reality therapy. If you are not intentional about your counseling, you’re just “accidentally” counseling. Choose a theory that interests you, and study that theory by researching on the Internet, attending trainings, reading books, and consulting with other professionals who use the theory. It is very important to know why you utilize specific techniques with certain clients. Many counselors develop their interpersonal style from mentors and other counselors. Some might use a combination from current mentors and past counselors they had when receiving services themselves. If you ask them why they use certain techniques, they often respond by saying this is what they were taught to do. An effective counselor is able to describe the reason he/she is using a technique and why that technique works best with an individual client.
2. Know the curriculum. It is a hallmark of an effective counselor to be on familiar terms with what he/she is teaching. Be especially knowledgeable on any subject you teach to a client.
3. Know your agency’s policies. If you don’t know the policies, how can you follow them? As counselors, we are role models. How do you think a client will react if he/she observes you violating agency policy? The client not only sees a bad example, but also becomes angry when you hold him/her accountable to the agency’s rules. The “Do as I say, not as I do” approach is highly ineffective, and harmful to clients. Examples would include your taking personal phone calls when you’re not supposed to—some agencies have a policy of no personal calls outside of lunch or breaks. Another example would be a counselor taking longer breaks than allowed by policy. Another example of poor role modeling would be a counselor using company time and resources to search for another job.
4. Have confidence in your ability and yourself. If you don’t believe you’re an effective counselor, the clients won’t believe it either.
5. Know your own goals. Counselors do not always work with the client to develop goals. In some cases, counselors dictate goals to clients. If a counselor has never been through the treatment planning process or does not believe in the process, he/she surely is allowing the client to minimize the importance. One way to improve your skills as a counselor is to write a treatment plan for yourself. Identify a problem you want to solve. Choose the goal, and decide what action(s) you need to take. Identify a timeline and measuring factors, and designate someone to help you with accountability. Remember that being an effective counselor does not occur by accident—it takes hard work. Don’t our clients deserve the best? We can provide the best by striving to be the best counselors we can be. Pete Nielsen, ICADC, CADC II, serves as a Regional Vice President of the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (CAADAC) and is a substance abuse professional and interventionist with Willingness to Change in Pollock Pines, California. He has worked for 10 years as an alcohol and drug counselor in residential and outpatient programs. His e-mail address is