New program addresses shortage of addiction specialists

Throughout Indiana, more and more lives are being overwhelmed by opioid addiction.

Indiana has one of the highest rates of opioid use or dependency in the U.S. More than 1,700 state residents died from drug overdoses in 2017.

And as the addiction problem gets worse, Indiana officials have found the state doesn’t have the licensed therapists necessary to treat those who need help.

“Our supply of therapists was not big enough for the number of people coming to get care,” said George Hurd, vice president of Community Behavioral Health. “You compound that with the opioid epidemic and realization of what was going on, not only around the state but the country, you have this major problem with no easy solution to it.”

To address the shortage of trained behavioral health specialists in Indiana, Community Health Network has announced a new partnership with IUPUI, the University of Indianapolis and Ascend Indiana, an organization that brings together industry, higher education and philanthropic leaders.

The Community Behavioral Health Academy will prepare licensed clinical social workers to treat addiction, substance use disorder and other aspects associated with the opioid epidemic. The academy will graduate 15 to 30 new behavioral health specialists each year, with the potential to treat thousands more people struggling with addiction.

“We know these are small dents in this problem. But with the ability to treat both mental health and addictions, these will be the most sought-after people in this counseling arts field,” Hurd said.

The announcement of the academy comes at the time when Indiana is projected to need about 7,000 more behavioral health specialists, according to data calculated by Ascend during an analysis. The state ranks 44th in the U.S. in its capacity to meet medication-assisted treatment needs, according to research from Pew Charitable Trusts.

Multiple factors have led to Indiana’s shortage of trained behavioral health professionals. The job has relatively low pay and features stressful work conditions. In addition, the onslaught of addiction brought by the opioid epidemic has required many specialists currently in the field to learn some of the more recent evidence-based treatments for addiction and substance use disorder, Hurd said.

The Community Behavioral Health Academy was envisioned as a way to address those issues.

“If we’re going to get ahead of this, we need a workforce that’s more ready to come in and treat people more holistically, rather than just saying they’ll work on their behavioral health issues, and when they have those under control, they’re handed off to someone else to work on their addictions.”

For the staff in Community Behavioral Health, evidence became overwhelming that they were unprepared for the wave of patients needing help with addiction treatment.

Leaders within Community Health Network used marketing campaigns and recruitment bonuses to hire more licensed counselors, but that approach wasn’t working, Hurd said. The problem wasn’t in attracting a workforce; it was that therapists were not graduating from master’s degree programs in social work and getting licensed in the number needed to address the opioid epidemic.

That led the health system to Ascend Indiana, an initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership that focused on bringing talent and developing a workforce for local industries. Ascend leaders offered to work with them. A grant provided by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on the well-being of people living in the Indianapolis area, funded research and other aspects of setting up the academy.

Community also started recruiting colleges and universities to partner with. After putting together a proposal for interested educational partners, they decided that the University of Indianapolis and IUPUI were the best fits.

“Here were two really local partners who have schools of social work, and both of them were very willing to adapt their curricula to meet our target at the end of this: to get a more highly skilled than they already are workforce who would feel confident dealing with both addictions and mental health,” Hurd said.

The University of Indianapolis already had a partnership with Community Health Network prior to the academy. When university officials were presented with the opportunity to be part of this effort, they felt it was an ideal extension of that existing relationship, said Anita Thomas, dean of the college of applied behavioral sciences at the university.

“It was natural for us to extend in terms of thinking about an opportunity for our social work program to again develop a partnership with Community Health Network that would allow us to have more personalized training to solve some of these addictions problems,” she said.

Students at either the University of Indianapolis or the Indiana University School of Social Work at IUPUI will go through the academy preparing to earn dual licenses as both a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical addiction counselor. Participants will be chosen from current students seeking the master’s degree in social work.

They will complete a specialized curriculum and go through internships over the course of two semesters.

“People like Community Health Network, the clinicians, are really seeing trends and changes in symptomatology. Depression is depression, but it really looks different based on where we are today and issues going on,” Thomas said. “This was a great opportunity for us to blend the on-the-ground expertise with our academic knowledge.”

The academy will offer students financial incentives, support in obtaining the appropriate licenses and pathways to employment following graduation, including priority job interviews at Community Health Network.

Ascend Indiana also will help health system leaders and schools learn from Community’s program so the approach can spread throughout the state.

“In the community mental health center setting, talent supply is only meeting 68 percent of projected demand for mental health positions,” said Jason Kloth, president and CEO of Ascend Indiana, in a statement. “This partnership between Community Health Network, (Indiana University School of Social Work) and UIndy will create a pipeline of highly trained behavioral health professionals to provide timely recovery services.

“Additionally, by sharing what we’ve learned through this process, we hope to enable employers and educational institutions to replicate this model.”

Recruitment for students of the academy starts this month at both IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis. The program courses will start in the fall.

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What is it? A program intended to prepare more licensed clinical social workers to provide treatment for addiction and substance use disorder.

Why is it needed? Analysis indicates that Indiana is falling about 7,000 licensed therapists short of the need for addiction services, mostly due to the opioid crisis.

Who does it involve? Community Health Network, IUPUI, the University of Indianapolis and Ascend Indiana.

How many people will the academy take? The hope is to yield between 15 and 30 licensed clinical social workers each year.

Who is the program geared at? Eligible candidates are current students earning their master’s degree in social work and in their first year of coursework.

When does it start? Participants are currently being recruited. Coursework starts in fall 2019.