How Professional Counselors Can Help Address The Opioid Crisis

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Female hands taking pills from an orange pill container

Substance abuse is a common issue faced by many counseling clients. Addiction can physically, emotionally and mentally affect individuals of all socioeconomic classes and ages. Those people impacted require specialized treatment, which often includes counseling. Substance abuse-focused counselors are found in a number of settings — from schools to workplaces — and see all types of clients struggling to reach recovery. Counselors are also taking on increased importance in America as the nation is ravaged by a growing drug abuse crisis and grasping to find ways to deter youth and adults from the dangers of opioid addiction.

Illegal opiates — primarily heroin — have always been a known danger; however, pharmaceutical painkillers have been seen as a primary driver of the opioid epidemic. The growing crisis has led many local, state and federal government leaders to declare opioid addiction and its fall-out as a national emergency. The wide availability and addictive qualities of prescription drugs, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, often legitimately given for surgery recovery or pain relief, have contributed to cases of abuse and death. Street drugs (abused in suburbs as much as in the inner city) have also increased in strength and led to proliferating overdoses, adding to the crisis.

Counselors can assist in countering the growing threat of opioid addiction and abuse. The scope and intensity of the problem have stressed local and state resources, highlighting the opportunity for counselors’ role in deterring, preventing and intervening. Here is more information on the opioid crisis and how the skills of mental health counselors can be leveraged in helping all individuals affected directly and indirectly.

Facts about the opioid crisis

The lethal effect of the opioid emergency has spiked in recent years. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in 2015. Of those 52,404 drug-related overdoses, 20,101 were attributed to prescription painkillers and 12,990 to heroin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 91 Americans die every day from an overdose. Yet despite flaring into a national emergency in 2017, the CDC noted that the problem has been building for at least the last 15 years, underscoring the entrenched problem facing counselors and the nation.

Since 1999, the number of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. has quadrupled, according to government statistics. However, the CDC said no increase in the amount of pain felt by Americans was measured in the time period. Deaths from those drugs have increased at a similar rate, more than quadrupling since 1999. In 2000, opioids (both prescription and illicit) were responsible for three deaths per 100,000 in population; in 2015, that number became more than 10. Heroin is now blamed for four deaths per 100,000, up from one as late as 2010.

Synthetic opioids have also factored in heavily. Deaths due to powerful and unpredictable-when-abused substances like fentanyl were attributed to less than one death per 100,000 in 2012 but grew to three in 2015.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on any given day in the U.S.:

  • More than 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed.
  • 3,900 people being taking prescription opioids for nonmedical use.
  • 580 individuals use heroin for the first time.

The sum of the opioid crisis has led to $55 billion in health and social costs every year, HHS reported, and the amount is likely to continue to grow as the problem accelerates. The opioid crisis has also created a large need for specialization in substance abuse counseling. National Public Radio (NPR) reported on a study that found a 3,000 percent rise in health care claims for individuals for opioid dependence between 2007 and 2014.

Who is affected?

The opioid addiction crisis has battered communities in all corners of the nation and of all income levels and ethnic make-ups, meaning counselors dealing with this issue will have a large and varied number of clients to treat and communities to serve. Particular populations have shown marked risk related to dependency and death.

States hit hardest by manufacturing and industrial downturns as well as those with large rural populations that have seen an increase in the unemployment rate have been especially affected by overdose deaths and addiction issues. These increased overdose deaths and addiction issues has led to counselors having a larger workplace presence to help individuals who might have been recently laid off or laid up with an injury that a doctor prescribed painkillers to treat. According to HHS, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were among the 13 states that experienced 19–35.5 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 in the population. Substance abuse counselors and professionals who collaborate with employers to craft strategies and protocols for serving the mental health needs of the workforce can expect to see increased opportunity to counsel in this area. According to a National Safety Council survey:

  • More than 70 percent of workplaces are impacted by prescription opioid misuse and abuse.
  • Just 13 percent of employers are confident they can spot signs of misuse, and 76 percent don’t have training or resource to close the knowledge gap.
  • Some 81 percent of employers said that their policies lacked at least one critical element of a drug-free workplace program.
  • And 70 percent of employers have expressed the desire to help employees struggling with dependency return after completing some form of treatment.

Youth and adolescents are another group especially vulnerable to the ongoing opioid crisis. This fact means counselors at schools and those who specialize in family settings are seeing an increase in clients and cases related to opioid dependency and death. The ASAM cited that 276,000 individuals ages 12 to 17 used painkillers for nonmedical purposes in 2015; of them, 122,000 had an addiction to prescription pills. The number of prescriptions written for adolescents doubled between 1994 and 2007, which has also led to a flood of medication being shared between friends and classmates.

The need for awareness and education at an early age, which counselors can provide, has increased in light of the opioid crisis so much so that The Associated Press reported some education systems have introduced training programs as early as kindergarten. Ohio and New York have passed legislation that requires schools to make opioid abuse prevention a core part of health education. School counselors will need to be ready to not only help students navigate their own recovery from opioid use but also to counsel those who may have a parent or relative struggling with dependency. Emergency counseling for classes that experience a student death due to an opioid overdose is also an increasingly likely reality counselors will need to train and prepare for.

Youths are also a large subgroup of another high-risk population: heroin users. According to ASAM, approximately 21,000 adolescents used heroin in 2015, and those who become dependent on nonmedical use of prescription pills are particularly susceptible to be driven to heroin due to the desire for a stronger high. Painkiller tolerances develop as quickly as addictions to them. Heroin is notoriously addictive and lethal, and its dangers continue to grow by the day. Sellers have been known to cut the drug with other substances (reducing quality to make supply last longer) and increasingly have chosen the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. In one instance, Chicago experienced 74 overdoses in 72 hours due to laced heroin. Substance abuse counselors will be an asset in helping those clients in rehab learn more about the dangers, as well as educate other at-risk individuals.

Woman receiving counseling from professional.

Why professional counselors are needed

The opioid crisis has created an especially high demand for counselors. Despite the fact specific populations and areas are more at risk, the national spread of the epidemic is undeniable. The CDC stated that 19 states registered a significant statistical increase in the rate of drug overdoses, which included population centers like Florida, Illinois and New York, as well as disparate states from Louisiana to Maine to Washington. These wildfire-like tendencies of the opioid crisis have exacerbated what resources localities and states have to combat the threat and provide treatment.

In a separate article, NPR reported on the shortage of addiction counselors, noting even though the Affordable Care Act increased coverage, a lack of labor has obstructed plans to expand treatment services. The need for counselors remains high, as the opioid epidemic widens, and authorities have aimed at increasing the supply of counselors. Anne Herron, lead workforce development official for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, said to NPR that her agency was reaching out to high schools and colleges to collaborate on creating training curricula for counselors.

In the areas most impacted by opioid addiction and overdose, available resources have been so stretched that law enforcement has been forced to act in a counseling capacity in many cases, The Washington Post reported. Even though police departments want to help those affected, Tom Synan, chief of the Newtown, Ohio, police, told the Post, “[L]aw enforcement has been forced to take the lead on this, and we probably are not the best profession to be doing this because our job really is to enforce laws. I never got into police work thinking I’d watch an entire generation die of drugs.”

Contact Bradley University for more information

As the opioid crisis deepens in America, professional counselors are needed more than ever to help tackle the problem. Countless opportunities exist for counselors to help raise greater awareness among impressionable adolescents, and there is a need for such mental health and substance abuse professionals in recovery initiatives. As evidenced, a shortage and resource strain have complicated these efforts.

If you are interested in helping provide treatment for clients affected by abuse and training others on opioid dangers, consider contacting Bradley University for more information on its online Master of Arts in Counseling degree program. Students who complete the program can gain the skills and competencies needed to effectively address the opioid epidemic and put their education toward a greater good.


Recommended Reading

A career in counseling: A closer look at areas of specialization

What nurses need to know about the opioid epidemic in the U.S.

Bradley University Online Counseling Program