George Stoupas

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.8 million Americans aged 12 or older had a diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year. This amounts to nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population, or 1 in 13 people. Addiction has recently gained widespread national attention, in part due to the escalating opioid crisis. Over 50,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses alone in 2015, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that addiction and related problems cost our country $600 billion per year, not to mention the incalculable social and emotional impact on individuals, families, and communities. One positive effect of this grim situation is an increased focus on treatment effectiveness and availability. Last year, approximately 21.7 million people needed specialized substance use treatment, with 2.3 million actually receiving it. On March 31st, 2015, there were over one million people (1,305,647) on the census rolls of U.S. treatment centers, with over 15,000 treatment facilities in operation across the country to meet this need. This assortment of governmental, private non-profit, and for-profit organizations is maintained by a massive workforce of approximately 130,000 full time staff members.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the demand for qualified professionals to work in the treatment industry is only growing. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics places the job growth rate for addictions counselors at 22 percent by 2024 – much faster than the national average. In addition to the growing need for services, factors like turnover and retirement have accelerated job growth in this area. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports, turnover rates for addiction services professionals range from 18 to 40 percent. While stress and burnout are certainly factors, many staff members also leave for better positions as they attain higher levels of training and education. The average age of someone in the addiction treatment workforce is in the mid-40s. For clinical directors, 60 percent are over the age of 50. As older professionals retire, new ones are needed to fill the vacancies as well as new positions created as the result of demand. In various surveys, program directors at addiction treatment agencies report difficulty hiring for these jobs. One reason for this is an insufficient number of applicants who have the requisite education and/or certifications.

So, who then, is qualified to enter these positions and satisfy this increasing demand? Addiction treatment is unique among other behavioral healthcare fields. Unlike mental health counseling, where nearly all states require at least a master’s degree to practice, addiction counseling is regulated by a complex patchwork of state agencies and national credentialing organizations. Just 3 states require addiction counselors to have graduate degrees, while the vast majority require a bachelor’s degree or less. Owing in part to its origins in the mutual-aid/peer-support movement, addiction counseling operates according to an apprenticeship model. This means that more time is spent working in the field under supervision than is spent in the classroom. Shorter degree programs allow individuals to begin work sooner and experience hands-on learning in the “real world.” This focus on applied skills, local workforce needs, and job preparation is a cornerstone of the community college mission.

A 2003 survey revealed that there were over 400 specialized Addiction Studies programs in the United States. Of these, 69 percent were at the associate’s degree (2 year) level. Community colleges have historically been the home for this discipline, with programs extending as far back as the 1970s. For many new students interested in the addiction treatment field, community colleges are a natural fit. First, these institutions are typically “open-enrollment,” which means that prospective students do not have to meet eligibility criteria commonly seen in four-year universities like minimum GPA and test scores. Often, all that is required is an application and fee, though specific programs may have additional requirements. For many people who dream of becoming an addiction counselor, this comes as a welcomed relief. Those who are drawn to the addiction treatment field tend to have some personal experience with it; between 40 to 60 percent of professionals identify as being in recovery. Many students returning to college have had negative academic experiences as the result of their addiction. Others have no prior college experience at all or are beginning a new career in mid-life after initiating recovery. In all of these cases, community colleges are well equipped to meet students where they are and provide the support necessary for them to be successful – all while providing specialized knowledge that will prepare them for work in the field. Other benefits of community college addiction studies programs include accreditation and affordability. When students complete courses, they are issued college credit that may be transferred to other academic institutions, unlike the certificates issued by private training companies. This provides a foundation for students who want to eventually pursue advanced degrees and licensure in the future. Moreover, community college tuition is usually less expensive. A final benefit of community college addiction studies programs pertains to the field as a whole and the clients it serves. Presently, the addictions workforce is largely white, female, and middle-aged. However, trends in the demographic characteristics of people in treatment for substance use disorders point in the exact opposite direction: people of color, male, and young. If we want the diversity of our clients to mirror those who work with them, then community college programs provide an excellent, accessible resource that reflects the faces of the communities they serve.

If you are interested in learning more, both the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC) have online national databases of addiction studies programs. * Citations are available upon request.

Dr. Stoupas is associate professor of Human Services in the Addiction Studies program at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida. PBSC’s program is designed to meet all of the educational training requirements for Florida state addiction counseling certification and prepares students for clinical work in the treatment industry.
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