Research Regarding Substance Use

Research is foundational to an effective counseling practice. The ACA Code of Ethics (2014) states that:

When providing services, counselors use techniques / procedures / modalities that are grounded in theory and/or have an empirical or scientific foundation (C.7.a).
Counselors do not use techniques / procedures / modalities when substantial evidence suggests harm, even if such services are requested (C.7.c).

Thus, it is critical that counselors know how to access and evaluate research, so that they are able to make informed research decisions. Remember, just because something has been published in a peer reviewed journal does not mean that it is definitively true. While research can be a powerful guide, all research has limitations, and not all research will be applicable to every client.




Recommended Readings & Resources

To get the most out of this unit, please review the following:

  1. The Research Informed Counseling course
  2. Ercikan & Roth, 2006
  3. Wester & Borders, 2013
  4. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Evidence Based Practices Resource Center
  5. Mayer, 2014



Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Describe how qualitative and quantitative research designs are used to answer different research questions.
  2. Define reliability and validity, and describe the importance of these concepts in quantitative research.
  3. Critique the quality of evidence based practice resources.
  4. List potential research competencies that counselors can achieve.
  5. Use evidence based practice resources to locate and evaluate prospective treatments for substance use and other mental health disorders.
  6. Describe the historic problems associated with LD50 research.



Research Informed (Evidence Based) Counseling Practice Course

Spend some time reviewing the materials in the Research Informed Counseling course.

Ensure that you understand:

  • Basic techniques for evaluating qualitative and quantitative research (here).
  • Reliability and validity in the context of assessments (here).
  • Resources for finding information on evidence based practices (here).



Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Research studies can be categorized as either qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods (qualitative & quantitative). Some researchers and scholars have strong opinions about which type of research is "better". Read the following article before responding to the reflection questions.




  1. Ercikan, K., & Roth, W.-M. (2006) What good is polarizing research into qualitative and quantitative?. Educational Researcher, 35(5), 14-23. doi: 10.3102/0013189X035005014



Qualitative vs Quantitative Exploration Questions

  • What beliefs do you have about qualitative and quantitative research methods?
  • What are some potential research questions about substance use counseling that are well suited to qualitative research?
  • What are some research questions about substance use counseling that are well suited to quantitative research?
  • Do you identify more with qualitative or quantitative research?
  • Which of your values, biases, beliefs, and experiences makes you align with the research approach you selected in the previous question?



Research Competencies in Counseling

Research is a broad subject matter. People can spend their lives studying different research methods and methodologies as well as different ways of designing research studies. So, what do counselors need to know about research? Check out the following study, which generated 159 different research competencies for counselors.




  1. Wester, K. L., & Borders, L. D. (2013). Research competencies in counseling: A delphi study. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92(4), 447-458. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00171.x



Research Competencies Exploration Questions

  • What are your thoughts regarding the list of research skills and knowledge?
  • After reading through this article do you feel that you have the research knowledge and skills that you need?
  • How can you improve your research skills and competencies?



Locating Evidence Based Treatments

There are a range of websites that archive information on evidence based treatments. Check out these web resources:




Evidence Based Treatments Exploration Questions

  • What thoughts do you have regarding the above resources?
  • Do you think that research showing a treatment is effective with clients of a given culture can generalize to clients with different cultural identities?
  • What are some potential considerations for a counselor who is thinking about generalizing the results from a study on treating alcohol use disorder that included a sample that was mostly white males to client who identifies as a transgendered and of African descent?
  • Do you believe the counselor in the above example would be using research to inform their practice, even if they deviate from the counseling protocol used in the depression study based on their client's culture?
  • How did you arrive at your answer to the previous question?
  • How can you tell which evidence based treatments are likely to be effective with clients from a given culture?



Journals and Databases

Click here to open a .pdf listing useful journals and databases.




Journals and Databases Exploration Questions

  1. How can you access and utilize research after graduation?



Nicotine LD50 Research

The lethal dose of a substance is the "Amount of a substance or physical agent (e.g., radiation) that causes death when taken into the body) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013). The lethal dose 50, abbreviated LD50, is the lethal dose of a substance or agent that will kill 50% of a given population (e.g., mice, rats, humans, etc.). LD50 estimates are critical to physicians, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals who are determining how much of a given substance they can safely prescribe to a person. However, determining the LD50 for people can be difficult, since researchers cannot give human participants different doses of substances to measure how many people die. Thus, LD50 data is typically inferred from research on animals.

Estimates for the LD50 for nicotine have been available for over a century. However, the accuracy of these estimates has recently been called into question. Read the following peer-reviewed editorial critiquing the currently accepted LD50 for nicotine, as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health chemical listing for nicotine before responding to the following reflection questions.




  • Mayer, B. (2014) How much nicotine kills a human: Tracing back the generally accepted lethal dose to dubious self-experiments in the nineteenth century. Archives of Toxicology, 88(1), 5-7. doi: 10.1007/s00204-013-1127-0
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (1994). Nicotine. Retrieved from: www.cdc.gov/niosh/idlh/54115.html

The above CDC reference is the currently accepted safety data for nicotine exposure in the workplace.




Nicotine LD50 Exploration Questions

  • How do you know what research is trustworthy?
  • How do you know when you can trust an authority figure, such as your course instructor or a textbook author?
  • In what ways might a researchers bias impact study results?
  • How might the political climate influence what research results are published and disseminated?