Preparing more substance abuse counselors

Sheriann Holder-France (right), an academic assistant/outreach coordinator at Hagerstown Community College, meets with Stephaney Marshall, a student majoring in substance abuse counseling. (Photo: HCC)

The opioid crisis grabs news headlines, but less attention is given to the people helping on the front lines: substance abuse counselors, who are experiencing a crisis of their own – a staffing shortage.

“Traditionally, substance abuse counseling has been a difficult field to hold onto people for long periods of time,” says Mary Hendrickson, director of behavioral and social sciences/business at Hagerstown Community College (HCC) in Maryland. “Some people are OK and take to it, while others burn out. It can be quite a stressful field. Client relapses can be common, and they take a toll on both the client and counselor alike. Stress and frustration build up over time, and can lead to counselors leaving the field.”

Hendrickson helped jump-start two new substance abuse counseling programs at HCC this past year, thanks to a $38,072 grant from the Maryland Agricultural Education and Rural Development Assistance Fund. The state grant funded a new associate of applied science degree that prepares students to become certified alcohol and drug counselors and a certificate-level program that puts graduates in the pipeline for an associate degree or for an entry-level position in the field as a trainee.

Many community colleges offer similar drug counselor education programs, and others, particularly in rural areas, are adding them to meet a growing workforce demand. Virginia Highlands Community College, for example, this fall will start a two-semester program focused on preparing students to secure a state certification to work as assistant substance abuse counselors. It expects 20 to 25 students to enroll in the program.

Something that connects

The planning that went into starting HCC’s programs appears to be on target as their benchmarks for recruiting students and area substance abuse agencies were exceeded. Both academic programs were designed to provide a more direct path to a career by giving students a chance to get in the workforce sooner, according to HCC. Twenty-three students have enrolled in the associate-degree program, 13 in the certificate program and 11 agencies have joined as advisory group partners.

“What was particularly satisfying was that we saw students who have been searching for human services careers but were unsure where they wanted to work,” says Sheriann Holder-France, academic assistant/outreach coordinator for the program. “The students who have decided to major in this field truly feel like they have something that connects with them. They weren’t ‘settling’ for something.”

In 2016, there were 260,200 jobs as abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s estimated the number of jobs in the field will grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors made a median salary of $39,690 in 2016. Although public and private two-year colleges comprise a small fraction of jobs in this field — the vast majority are employed at elementary and secondary schools — they do offer the highest annual mean wage at $73,050.

Taking care of themselves, too

Will these future counselors face stress and frustration? Probably, says Holder-France — a veteran substance abuse counselor who was hired through the grant to serve as the point person for both the students and the agencies — but self-care is something they can learn now.

“One of my joys in this project has been to be able to sit down with students regarding scheduling, concerns about going into the field and what realistic expectations to have,” she says. “Academicians are dedicated to theory and practice. They want to train students to be the best clinicians, but they are also people. We need to teach our students even while they’re training to keep a healthy balance between self-care and being a good resource for their clients. It’s OK to take 15 minutes a day to block out time for yourself. Doing little things for self-care will go a long way.”

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