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WVU building addiction studies minor

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of a seven-part series on West Virginia University’s efforts to address the opioid crisis in the state. The speakers in this series shared the work and progress in their respective fields and departments at an academic media day held by WVU on Nov. 13.

 By TIFFANY TOWNER
Times West Virginian
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — If a man broke his leg, or had diabetes, he wouldn’t be treated by someone who just had an interest in helping people.

He would be treated by a skilled professional.

Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and addiction studies minor coordinator at West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services, discusses the need for trained workforce professionals to help treat addiction.
(Times West Virginian phot by Tiffany Towner)

The case should be the same with treating addiction, argues Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and addiction studies minor coordinator at West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services.

“It’s not just enough to stick a person with an interest in helping a problem in a role to try to intervene,” Tack said.

However, at the moment, there are not enough trained people to meet the demands caused by the opioids crisis, she said.

Understanding the deficit

Many people first got into the addiction-treatment field from the 1960s through the 1980s, Tack said, adding that many people who were in recovery from treatment themselves saw the career as an opportunity to give back.

Now, many of those people are aging out, Tack said, and it seems younger people are not being attracted to the field.

Tack also said that, historically, there have been access issues for people with substance-use disorders to get treatment, due to a lack of treatment providers, insufficient insurance coverage, denial and stigma.

“We’ve known for a long time we have a whole lot more people who need treatment than are getting it,” Tack said, adding that this even predates the opioid epidemic.

When the Affordable Care Act came about, Tack said, about 2 million more people had access to health-care coverage, and access to addiction treatments was expanded.

“For the first time, we had people who had insurance,” Tack said, adding: “Heretofore, many insurance plans did not cover substance-use disorder treatment.”

While this was great news, the effect was that more people began seeking treatment in a system that didn’t have adequate staffing.

And then the opioid epidemic hit. Many more people were in need of treatment.

Beyond medication

There is a need, Tack said, for counselors and case managers.

“Medicine is important, but when we hear about things like medication-assisted treatment, the treatment they’re talking about is provided by counselors, case managers, social workers, people like that,” she said.

The need for these trained professionals isn’t just in West Virginia; it’s across the nation, Tack said. And it’s a growing problem, as the opioid crisis hasn’t peaked yet.

Several groups, such as the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration and NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals, have initiatives underway to develop the workforce needed to prevent and treat substance-use disorders, Tack said.

By now, many know that West Virginia leads the country in opioid overdose rates, she said, as well as the highest rate of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

“We have this challenge, and yet, 21 percent of our counties have no counselor,” Tack said, adding that there may be a therapist in a county, but not one who specializes in addictions.

“While this is a national issue, we are even worse off as far as having trained professionals ready to work with this population when we are in the state that has the biggest problem,” she said. “That’s a disturbing juxtaposition in my mind.”

Setting goals

WVU wants to be part of the solution, Tack said, and can do that by developing formal training programs for addictions counselors. Currently, there are no programs in the state for this at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

“What we’re embarking on is a process to try to roll out some things to try to begin to get people some good, formal training,” Tack said. “This is a specialty counseling arena that requires specialty training.”

Step one to develop this training is to create an undergraduate minor at WVU, which is in the works, Tack said.

While the minor would be targeted to those wanting to work primarily in addictions counseling, Tack said there are allied professions and majors that may also come in contact with people with substance-use disorders who could help with intervention and screening.

After the minor is developed, the hope is to offer courses online so that students across the state can also receive the training, Tack said. Then, she said a certificate program would be created “for people who perhaps are already working in the field, but who would like to become a specialist in addictions.”

WVU’s goal is to offer an addictions concentration in the current master of arts in counseling program, and Tack said the accrediting program CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) already has an accreditation for addictions concentrations. Tack said the concentration could be added to an array of options, with different levels for different professionals.

To get to the end goal, however, Tack said there need to be proposals and approvals every step of the way through the faculty governance process and upper administration.

Creating a minor

Tack said that addiction studies minor is “significantly down the road in the terms of the approval process.”

The minor, which will be available for all majors, won’t be general interest – it will be clinically based, Tack said, looking at how to intervene in the problem as well as helping people get better.

While there are many fields that this minor would complement, she said the university’s focus is on majors such as social work, psychology, public health, nursing and education.

The minor would encompass 15 credit hours in five courses.

• The first is an introduction to addiction studies, which is a theories course. Students look at drugs and their effects on the body, Tack said.

• The diagnostic course is called addiction screening and assessment, one of the focuses of which will be the best-practice model SBIRT: Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment.

• Addiction counseling is the third course, focusing on motivational techniques.

• The fourth course is families and addiction.

“We talk about the person with the substance-use disorder a lot, as we should … however, there are rings of destruction that happen around the person with the substance-use disorder,” Tack said.

• The final course is research-based, and includes a service component that will require students to be in the community to see the opioid situation first-hand.

The introduction to addiction studies course is currently being offered, with 11 students enrolled from a variety of majors, Tack said. For the spring semester, that class will be offered again, along with a second special-topics course. Thirty-two students are registered for those two courses for the spring.

“There seems to be quite a buzz that we’re going to get a lot of students,” Tack said.

She hopes that, if the final approval occurs, the minor will be running in the 2018-19 school year.

TOMORROW: Suzanne Bell, director of the WVU Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, talks about how the opioid crisis has impacted forensics.

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