The Opioid Epidemic: The Role of the Addiction Psychologist in This National Crisis

The Opioid Epidemic and the Shortage of Addiction Counselors: A National Crisis

The statistics are frightening, and they continue to rise. Addiction to and death from opioid drugs — which include prescription pain medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone, a drug called fentanyl that is used in anesthesia but increasingly being combined with other opioids, and the street drug heroin — are at their highest levels ever:

  • Drug overdose has become the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • More than 90 Americans die every day as the result of an opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Between May 2016 and May 2017, 66,324 people died of opioid overdoses, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That number is about 8,000 more people than were killed during the years of conflict in Vietnam.

The epidemic has taken a devastating toll on addicts and their families and on the ever-increasing costs of treating substance abuse. The opioid crisis has also created a national emergency in another area: There simply aren’t enough substance abuse counselors in the United States.

A shortage of addiction counseling professionals

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 20% rise in employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors from 2016 through 2026, much faster than average for all occupations. 

Multiple factors contribute to the shortage, including the stigma of mental illness, an aging workforce, and compensation that is just now catching up to demand. But, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the largest increase in need is likely due to the Affordable Care Act, which requires all insurers to cover treatment, meaning that millions more people now have access to mental health care.

Anatomy of an epidemic 

Opioids became widely prescribed as painkillers beginning in the late 1990s, after pharmaceutical companies assured doctors the drugs were not addictive, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But, as overdose rates began to rise, it was clear this was not the case. This is a common scenario:

  • Opioid use begins innocently, perhaps with a prescription for painkillers after an injury or surgery (40% of the opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved a prescription medication).
  • Once in the brain, the drugs block pain and release chemicals that create feelings of pleasure.
  • With repeated use, more and more of the drug is required to block the pain and/or create the same euphoric sensation.
  • The body becomes dependent, creating symptoms of withdrawal if it goes without the drug too long.
  • Those who are addicted may try to convince their doctors that they are still in pain, shop around among multiple doctors, buy the drug illegally, or even move on to using heroin — a decision fraught with extra danger, as street drugs are not consistent in strength and can be altered with such substances as fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and easily proves fatal in the wrong hands  
The Opioid Epidemic and the Shortage of Addiction Counselors: A National Crisis

The roles of an addiction counselor

Treatment for opioid addiction usually includes inpatient rehabilitation, behavioral counseling, and medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. But, it can take time and relapse is common.

Substance abuse counselors treat and support a patient through the process, providing information, ongoing therapy, and coordination with medical doctors.

In addition to treating patients, addiction counselors can work to educate the community, create an ongoing dialogue with young people in school settings, and speak to civic organizations and other groups.

Make a difference in the opioid epidemic

An education in addictions can open the door to many professional opportunities, including community health workers, addictions case managers, outreach specialists, and addictions treatment technicians.

Purdue Global offers:

Both programs are accredited by the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC). Graduates of the bachelor’s degree program are eligible to sit for the National Certification Commission for Addictions Professionals' (NCCAP) National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I and II certification exams. The certificate program meets the coursework requirements to prepare you to take the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals’ Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) examination. 

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Important Information

Purdue Global cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Note that additional requirements must be completed to take the NCAC and MAC examinations, including degree, field experience, and licensure requirements. Refer to www.NAADAC.org for full eligibility requirements including state-specific information.