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Private practice in the era of addiction

December 4, 2017
by Sherry Benton, PhD
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People with addictions often have co-morbid behavioral health problems such as anxiety and depression. Rarely is it a singular issue. Yet, we often look at it through a zoomed in lens, focusing on treating the addiction alone, rather than the ripple effect of related problems.

When it comes to opioids in the United States, we have reached an unsurprising impasse where the pressure of delivering effective treatment is falling into the hands of thousands of behavioral health private practitioners. Whether you’re a psychologist, counselor, clinical social worker or specialist, you are going to find yourself treating people who are suffering from addictions.

There’s a double-sided issue that needs to be addressed, now that the opioid epidemic has been classified as a public health emergency. Behavioral health problems such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and PTSD can increase susceptibility to addictions, and addictions can increase risk for other behavioral health problems. Comprehensive treatment plans that address all of these problems are vital to our clients’ successful recovery.

Going beyond addiction

Depression, anxiety and substance abuse often come as a package, with over half of those treated for addictions having comorbid behavioral health problems. Depression can increase the risk of relapse to addictive behavior, and addiction can increase the severity of depressive episodes. In addition, those with higher levels of anxiety may have heightened withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit their drug or alcohol use. It’s a tightly woven thread of disorders and symptoms, and they each require specialized treatment as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Those suffering from addiction often need far-reaching treatment programs that address the addiction itself, withdrawal symptoms, and the more common disorders like anxiety and depression that can come along with it.

The issue is that many private practices are not equipped to do it all. Traditional psychologists rarely receive the in-depth addiction training they need, and most end up learning on the job or in practicums. In the same vein, specialists who focus entirely on addiction are really great at the process of recovery, but generally don’t have a good grasp on other behavioral health disorders.

Strengthening education and fostering post-grad collaboration

This training can absolutely start in graduate school. Whether you’re following a general or specialist path, we are in the age of addiction, and needing to treat someone in this capacity is unavoidable. Modern graduate programs are now tasked with creating more seamless programs to better incorporate this specialty into traditional education.

For post-graduate work, mental health professionals need a better sense of collaboration to truly help people on an effective road to recovery. Psychologists often hesitate to treat people with substance use disorders, believing they may need specialized treatment. As a result, many people suffering from addiction who are in need of treatment aren’t receiving it. Often, mental health specialists focus on the anxiety or depression and completely miss the co-existing addiction if they are not trained to identify and treat both.

If you are practicing, read works from professionals outside your specialty, and talk to other experts often. To address the widespread scope of America’s quickly growing addiction, we have to work together. We need to be expanding the scope of private practice, learning how to make individual therapeutic programs more wide-ranging, and focusing on treating the whole person, not just the addiction.

Sherry Benton, founder and Chief Science Officer of TAO Connect, is a psychologist with more than 25 years of clinical and research experience in counseling psychology and college student mental health.