Addiction Counseling Competencies

Addiction Counseling Competencies

TAP 21

The Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes of Professional Practice

Counselors who treat people with substance use disorders do life-changing work on a daily basis, amid difficult circumstances that include staff shortages, high turnover, low salaries, and scant program funding.

Counselors come to this important work by various paths and with vastly different skills and experience. The diversity of backgrounds and types of preparation can be a strength, provided there is a common foundation from which counselors work.

This publication addresses the following questions: What professional standards should guide substance abuse treatment counselors? What is an appropriate scope of practice for the field? Which competencies are associated with positive outcomes? What knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) should all substance abuse treatment professionals have in common?

Workforce development is essential to the field of substance use disorder treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has included workforce development in its Matrix of Priority Programs. A major focus of this workforce development strategy is improving the competencies of professionals in the field. This updated edition of Technical Assistance Publication (TAP) 21: Addiction Counseling Competencies: The Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes of Professional Practice (The Competencies) is a key component of that strategy.

In 1998, in cooperation with its Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) Network, SAMHSA published TAP 21, a comprehensive list of 123 competencies that substance abuse treatment counselors should master to do their work effectively. TAP 21 has been used to develop and evaluate addiction counseling curricula, advise students, and assess counseling proficiencies.

The overarching competencies in this updated version of TAP 21 remain largely unchanged from the original TAP 21. The KSAs have been changed from those in the 1998 edition, when necessary, in light of new thinking in the field. The competencies and the KSAs in practice dimension’s that address clinical evaluation and treatment planning have been revised to reflect changes in the field. The competencies are defined by sub lists of the KSAs needed to master each competency. Bibliographies have been supplemented with new publications through 2005. The format has been improved to make the information more accessible and useful.

SAMHSA’s TAP series provides a flexible format for the timely transfer of important technical information to the substance abuse treatment field. This updated version of TAP 21 exemplifies the flexibility of the TAP format. We are grateful to the members of the ATTC Network and staff and to all those who participated in the validation and updating of these competency lists.

Kana Enomoto, M.A.
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Kimberly A. Johnson, Ph.D.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

In 1998, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) published Addiction Counseling Competencies: The Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes of Professional Practice (The Competencies) as Technical Assistance Publication (TAP) 21. Developed by the National Curriculum Committee of the Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) Network, TAP 21 identifies 123 competencies that are essential to the effective practice of counseling for psychoactive substance use disorders. TAP 21 also presents the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) counselors need to become fully proficient in each competency.

TAP 21 has been widely distributed by SAMHSA’s Public Engagement Platform (PEP) and the ATTC Network. It has become a benchmark by which curricula are developed and educational programs and professional standards are measured for the field of substance abuse treatment in the United States. In addition, it has been translated into several languages.

Because the ATTC Network is committed to technology transfer, after the initial publication of TAP 21, the National Curriculum Committee began exploring ways to enhance the document for future printings. Successful technology transfer requires more than presenting good information. It entails transmitting scientific knowledge in a way that makes it understandable, feasible to implement in a real-world setting, and supportable at a systematic level—in other words, getting the right information across in a way that makes it useable. The National Curriculum Committee examined how best to package and present TAP 21 to help people learn key elements and adopt new strategies. The result was a revision of TAP 21—a process that was begun in 2000, was completed in 2005, and resulted in the current publication.


The Model

When creating The Competencies, the National Curriculum Committee recognized a need to emphasize three characteristics  of competency: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Many hours were spent conceptualizing a differentiated model when designing TAP 21—a model that could address general KSAs necessary for all practitioners dealing with substance use disorders while explaining the more specific needs of professional substance abuse treatment counselors.

The first section of the model addresses the generic KSAs. This section contains the transdisciplinary foundations, comprising four discrete building blocks: understanding addiction, treatment knowledge, application to practice, and professional readiness. The term “transdisciplinary” was selected to describe the knowledge and skills needed by all disciplines (e.g., medicine, social work, pastoral guidance, corrections, social welfare) that deal directly with individuals with substance use disorders.

The second section of the model specifically addresses the professional practice needs, or practice dimensions, of addiction counselors. Each practice dimension includes a set of competencies, and, within each competency, the KSAs necessary for effective addiction counseling are outlined.

Many additional competencies may be desirable for counselors in specific settings. Education and experience affect the depth of the individual counselor’s knowledge and skills; not all counselors will be experienced and proficient in all the competencies discussed.

The National Curriculum Committee’s goal for the future is to help ensure that every addiction counselor possesses, to an appropriate degree, each competency listed, regardless of setting or treatment model.

The relationship of the components in the competencies model is conceptualized as a hub with eight spokes (see figure 1). The hub contains the four transdisciplinary foundations that are central to the work of all addiction professionals. The eight spokes are the practice dimensions, each containing the competencies the addiction counselor should attain to master each practice dimension.



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Behavioral Health Rehabilitative Specialist & Addiction Counselor

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