A Rampant Opioid Epidemic and a Shortage of Mental Health Professionals

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Opioid addiction has the U.S. in its grip, and it appears to be squeezing tighter and tighter. The situation was first declared a crisis in 2014 when more people died from drug overdoses than any year previously, and it appears the epidemic isn’t anywhere near close to being over.

The death toll continues to rise as drug overdose remains the leading cause of death from unintentional injuries in the nation. The federal government recently reported there was a sharp rise in drug overdoses in the first nine months of 2016, and that nearly 60,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016 alone, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by The New York Times.

But this national public health emergency that has the attention of government, law enforcement, and health officials across the country has shed light on yet another pressing issue: There is a shortage of qualified mental health professionals who are prepared to address opioid addiction and its related issues, observers say.

Officials at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ School of Social Work told The Journal Gazette in 2016 that social workers who address mental health and addiction, among other issues, are in demand.

“The demand for social workers has always been high, but it is particularly true now,” said Michael Patchner, dean of the university’s School of Social Work, in a news release, according to the newspaper. “There are workforce shortages in the state [of Indiana] in mental health and addictions, in child welfare, and medical social work.”

Social workers wear many hats, including helping people in addiction recovery maintain stability in their daily lives. They also help people find employment and assist them with parental responsibilities.

Patchner noted that social workers manage child welfare issues that are related to people with addiction who cannot properly care for their children.

Jan Nes, who also works with the university’s social work program as its MSW program coordinator, told the newspaper that students graduating with a master’s in social work, “… have no difficulties securing employment post-graduation as community needs for master’s prepared social workers are very high, in part due to challenges brought on by addictions issues, including opioid addiction.”

Addiction Counselors Feeling the Strain

The dramatic rise in abuse of prescription opioids also has strained addiction counselors, reports National Public Radio (NPR). The increasing overdose death toll has led to some facilities trying to open more residential treatment beds, but finding enough qualified staff members to treat the people in those beds is a challenge.

The shortage of professionals in the addiction recovery field is not a new problem. But it is one that has gotten more attention as the opioid crisis continues to claim lives every day.  More staff members are needed to help people with opioid dependence. Rising demand for addiction care also has been linked to the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded health care access to people who didn’t have it before, including people with substance abuse issues.

About one of every four substance-abuse clinicians in the U.S. chooses to resign, and some are not leaving the field; they are just trading in their clinician job for another one in the industry.

Burnout and low pay are among the cited reasons people leave. Anne Herron of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) told NPR that federal officials are taking steps to address the counseling shortage, including developing training curricula for high schools and colleges.

Rural Communities and Opioid Abuse

Rural parts of the U.S. are among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, data show, and research suggests various factors may be responsible for that, including mental health.

Some researchers studying opioid usage trends in rural communities say untreated depression could be a reason some are improperly using the medications. People who seek them out for their sedative effects, which reduce the perception of pain, are attempting to self-medicate to find relief, albeit temporary, from symptoms of depression, a common medical condition.

A shortage of mental health professionals in these areas could mean depression is going undiagnosed and unaddressed among people who need treatment. Improved access to mental health services in rural areas is recommended.

Cuts to mental health services  also can contribute to the shortage of addiction treatment professionals.

Florida, for example, recently learned it won’t receive a $20 million federal grant that would have been used to pay for mental illness and substance abuse treatment services. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the news of the grant cut surprised several Florida lawmakers, who said they were not aware of the change.

The newspaper also reported that “drug treatment and mental health providers are scrambling to deal with the loss of funding.”

Demand Expected to Grow

Despite the shortage of addiction treatment professionals, the future is promising for people who are interested in working in this industry.

The projected job outlook for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors from 2014 to 2024 is 22 percent, which is faster than the average of seven percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.

The numbers suggest that as drug abuse treatment needs grow, demand will increase for counselors, doctors and nurses, and educators each year across the country.

Do You Have Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction is no easy affliction to experience. But the good news is you are not alone in the battle. Call Maryland House Detox at 855-969-8748 today and talk with an addiction specialist who can share information about our treatment options and which ones that best fit your needs. Your road to recovery is just one phone call away.

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  • This article brought to mind that those of us who hold undergraduate degrees and have multiple years of sobriety and clean time would make excellent facilitators and helpful in one-on-one paraprofessional counseling/sponsoring role.
    That begs the question ‘do you happen to know if any treatment facilities accept applicants with the aforementioned profile?’ And if so, could you suggest which ones so that I may get in touch in them to explore employment?
    Many thanks,
    ‘DonnaPia’ Vocci, B.A. Psychology/Sociology, C.Ht., Certified Clinical Hypnotist for 20 years

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