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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Addiction counsellors: Just say yes

By Aprille Janes
Special to The Toronto Sun

This year, the slogan for National Addictions Awareness Week is "In These Hands Our Future Lies." If you'd like to extend your hand and help people live healthy, addiction-free lifestyles, then take a closer look at the work of an addiction counsellor.

There are a number of educational avenues open to someone who is interested in this type of work. A degree or diploma in social services, or as a counsellor with specialized training in addiction counselling, is the common path.

George Brown College offers one such diploma. Enrolment in the Human Services Counsellor program provides training in generic counselling skills, with specialization in the fields of addiction, mental health and criminal justice. Those already working in a similar field such as nursing or counselling can also take advantage of the specialization.

During the three-year course, students complete 1,000 hours of supervised training concurrent with their classroom work. This internship is equivalent to one full year of employment.

In August 2000, legislation was enacted requiring graduates to register with The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers in order to use the title of social worker. Before the legislation, anyone could call themselves a social worker or social service worker and practice. The legislation ensures a standard of education and excellence for the public and those practicing in the field.

Employment opportunities for addiction counsellors range from working in mental health institutions and the criminal justice system to private practice. Gary Pelly, R.S.S.W., spoke about future employment prospects; "Opportunities are there. They'll probably always be there because the more we learn, the more we need to do and the more programs there are."

Pelly graduated with honours from George Brown College in 1987 and is now employed at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The centre is the largest such facility in Canada with additional satellite programs in communities across the province. It is also a teaching hospital, and has been recognized by the World Health Organization as one of four Centres of Excellence in the world.

Pelly explains further the types of opportunities offered for addiction therapists, as they are known at the centre: "We deal with a range of problems and addictions. I deal with just the substance part, but we have a program for gambling, a smoking cessation program and other programs like that. Everything from a general treatment program for people who've used all kinds of substances, to specialty programs such as cocaine addiction. There are even programs for specific groups so that they work with their communities and peers."

Pelly explains what drew him to this career choice: "I get my reward from being part of somebody's process. It's wonderful to see somebody come in here and do everything from reduce the harm to themselves and others around them, to having a real life-changing experience. It's like watching someone regain their sight or hearing for the first time."

If you're wondering if you're cut out for this type of work, ask yourself: Am I a good listener? Do I like being helpful to people?

Pelly adds, "A tricky core skill is to be empathic, to get inside and understand, while at the same time keep a healthy professional boundary in place so that you retain your objectivity. You have to be helpful while remembering these are the client's issues and not to take them on yourself.

"This is something that you work on while training. Part of it is training and part of it is a natural understanding."

If helping someone build a brighter future interests you, you may want to find out more about this career. Information on the George Brown College program can be found at or phone 416-415-5000.

You can also contact The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers at 416-972-9882 or visit

(Aprille Janes ( is a freelance writer based in Port Perry, Ont.)

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