New Challenges Create Work for Addictions Counselors

Whether it's dependency on drugs, alcohol or gambling, addictions are a growing concern in all areas of the country. As our awareness of the complex nature of the problem grows, so does the need for qualified addictions counselors.

There are many reasons behind the demand. Medical research has shown us more about how an addiction affects the brain. The baby boomers working in this field are approaching retirement age, creating job openings. More attention is being paid to addictions like gambling. Also, multicultural influences affect how we treat addicted persons from other cultures.

In the U.S., there is already a serious counselor shortage, according to Cynthia Moreno Tuohy. Tuohy is the executive director of The Association for Addictions Professionals (NAADAC).

She says the real issue is that the salaries are low and the demands for education are high. This can lead to high worker turnover.

A recent NAADAC survey shows that over 60 percent of their members have a master's degree, yet the average addictions counselor makes under $30,000 a year.

"Low rewards cause many counselors to leave and go to work in other fields where the pay is better," Tuohy says.

Other reasons for leaving the field include the high stress that comes with the job and the large volume of paperwork.

On the other hand, the work can be very rewarding. Many people work in the field because they want to make things better. "It is meaningful to watch someone change and take a positive approach with their lives," Tuohy says.

She adds that when you help an addicted person recover, you are not just helping that one person. You are affecting at least five other people, such as the addict's spouse, children and co-workers.

Tammy Purdy is the addiction therapy discipline chief at a center for addictions. She says that a growing number of addictions counselors work with a broad range of addictions, not just addictions to drug and alcohol.

Increasingly, agencies are doing both addictions treatment and mental health treatment. Many agencies look for counselors who can work in both addictions and mental health.

Purdy points out that social changes lead to new specializations in the field. This in turns leads to new skill requirements for addictions counselors.

Some of today's specialized areas include women's issues, concurrent disorders (people with both addictions and mental health issues), smoking cessation, methadone and opiate addictions, aboriginal programs, correctional programs, gang intervention programs and programs for immigrants.

"Centers with a lot of cultural diversity need multilingual counselors," Purdy says. She adds that policy makers need help from persons from other cultures. These people can help develop culturally sensitive programs and educate staff about cultural issues.

Counselors are now treating more people with gambling addictions. More and more people are becoming addicted as legalized gambling becomes widespread. Modern technologies like the Internet and video display terminals bring gambling opportunities to people everywhere.

Keith Whyte is the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Whyte says that two to three percent of the population in U.S. and Canada has a problem with gambling. That adds up to six to nine million adults in the U.S.

Whyte adds that in both Canada and the U.S., governments are turning a percentage of gambling profits into specific services for problem gamblers. This creates a need for qualified gambling counselors.

Currently, there are less than 1,000 certified gambling counselors in the U.S. Certification is a legal requirement in some states.

"Gambling counseling is an emerging field," he says. "It's a wonderful opportunity and challenge for young people who want to help pioneer and create new and better ways of dealing with addiction."

Recent research findings are also affecting the addiction counseling field, and in a positive way. The World Health Organization has released research talking about the neuroscience of addiction. The research describes addictions as a chronic disability and concludes that addicted persons are not deliberately trying to harm themselves.

This research creates the need for more highly skilled counselors. It also changes the way we look at addictions and influences funding to addictions programs.

Purdy points out that politics can play a major role in determining how we treat addicted persons. When funding is scarce, programs look for more economical ways of treating people. For example, detoxification centers are very expensive to operate. Some agencies are looking at ways to help certain people detoxify at home. This will create a need for persons with the skills to help people withdraw at home.

People interested in becoming an addictions counselor are wise to consider which type of job might suit them best. Burnout happens, says Purdy, when people work in a place that is not a good "fit" for their own philosophy and beliefs. It's also important to learn stress management techniques so you can prevent burnout.

Tuohy suggests that interested people interview their local treatment centers and find out what they are doing.

"You would learn so much about the profession's possibilities," she says. "You would discover the passion and the commitment that we have in the profession."


National Association for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Professionals
This organization has nearly 11,000 members from the US, Canada and other countries

National Council on Problem Gambling
Certifies gambling addictions counselors

Counseling and Addictions
Review the types of counseling therapies available that can support recovery

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