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Energy in the classroom

October 9, 2012
by Gary Enos, Editor
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Back when she first started teaching in the addiction studies department that she now chairs, Dona Kennealley of the University of South Dakota would be working primarily with nontraditional students with a recovery history, and a class size of about a dozen would be considered fairly healthy. Today, the school’s on-campus and online bachelor of science (BS) programs have more than 150 majors, and an exclusively online master’s program that has existed for only two years has 35 enrollees, with many young people eagerly pursuing a career path as an addiction professional.

“Over the years things have changed dramatically. Many young students now see this as a viable profession,” says Kennealley, whose department is housed in the second largest school on the University of South Dakota campus, the School of Health Sciences. “They want to get a four-year degree, and then they want to go on to get their master’s.”

Leaders in higher education say these are heady times for several academic programs in addiction studies. Public attention to substance abuse and its impacts, as well as a broader definition of addictions to include issues such as pathological gambling and sexual compulsivity, certainly is helping to fuel increased interest among young students in possibly pursuing an addiction studies curriculum.

But while today’s younger would-be counselors often are portrayed as being solely career-minded, and older generations of counselors in the profession are characterized as motivated only by a desire to help others in the same way they were helped, the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

Kennealley says many of the young students who enroll at the university have family members in recovery, and in fact many of the students themselves have had a problematic substance use history as well. Yet whereas many of the older counselors who entered the profession because of a personal history did not receive the help they needed until they had reached full-blown dependence on alcohol or drugs, many of these younger students were the beneficiaries of brief interventions that are designed to combat a problem before it becomes a life crisis.

As a result, “These students don’t really lead with any kind of recovery story,” says Kennealley. What they’ve experienced in the past isn’t generally obvious to others around them, she says.

A move to licensure

And some other differences remain between today’s students and the students Kennealley tended to work with when she first started teaching at the university more than 25 years ago. Kennealley’s faculty colleague Diane Sevening, an assistant professor at the university, says that several of the young students presently in the academic program stand at the ready to testify in support in early 2013 when addiction counselor licensure legislation is submitted for state lawmakers’ consideration. These students conceivably could find their predecessors from past generations on the other side of that debate, however.

Sevening explains that this is the second time members of the addiction counseling profession have sought licensure in South Dakota. On the first attempt about 10 years ago, the larger universe of licensed professional counselors who did not buy into the academic standards for addiction counseling constituted the biggest roadblock. Now a different potential adversary looms for licensure backers.

“Our biggest opposition right now is internally within the profession, from those who came into the profession with experience and no education,” Sevening says.

She says that in order to lend more perspective on the issue, stakeholders recently invited Donald P. Osborn, past president of NAADAC, The Association of Addiction Professionals and chair of the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC), to a meeting with members of the profession in South Dakota. The productive meeting certainly demonstrated the unrest among some professionals who see licensure and its focus on master’s-level education as an attempt to push them aside.

“People were [rushing] to the bathroom and crying, saying that they were going to lose their job,” Sevening says of a scenario that repeated itself at stages of the meeting.

She says that in designing the licensure bill proposal for South Dakota, supporters looked closely at the licensure law in Osborn’s home state of Indiana; Osborn directs the Addictions Studies Center at Indiana Wesleyan University. A Kansas licensure law that was adopted in 2011 also informed the process in South Dakota.
Indiana’s law, adopted in 2009, functioned to reduce consumer confusion over a plethora of counselor certifications that had emerged in the state over the years. It clarifies a counselor’s scope of practice, and established two licensure designations, one at bachelor’s-level training and one at master’s-level.

Sevening says the South Dakota bill should receive consideration in the early stages of a state legislative session that begins in January.

Good timing

The ambitions of today’s counseling students coincide nicely with the reported need for at least 5,000 new counselors in the profession every year to keep up with demand, says Osborn. With the federal Affordable Care Act signaling a bolder move toward an integrated healthcare model, expertise in treating addictions should be highly sought among a variety of healthcare organizations.

Osborn says of the typical counseling student’s mindset today, “They want an undergraduate education that gets them to graduate school that gets them a license that gets them a job.”