Posted: September 30, 2018
by Shawne K. Wickham, Union Leader
Caitlin Harty of Manchester says she knows she won't get rich going into the human services field. And she knows that counseling individuals who struggle with addiction can be stressful, sometimes frustrating, work.
But for Harty, who is pursuing a behavioral science degree at Manchester Community College, it's personal.
"I'm getting into the field because I want to be able to help those who don't have a voice," she said.
Her adopted sister is the child of a relative who was addicted to heroin and abandoned her, she said. "We took her in," she said.
Harty, 27, is among a growing number of Granite Staters driven to become social workers, counselors and peer support specialists because of the opioid crisis.
Some New Hampshire colleges are responding by adding majors, courses and certificate programs to address a workforce shortage that advocates say prevents many people from getting timely treatment. Having those social workers and recovery support workers in place will be key to the success of the state's plan to create a hub-and-spoke system of care for intervention, treatment and recovery.
Harty said she'd like to work with abused and neglected children; her dream job is to be a social worker in a hospital.
"I've always been driven to help others," she said. "Just to make them feel like there is somebody there for them."
Laura Bilodeau, professor of behavioral sciences and human services at Manchester Community College, said the workforce shortage began as a result of the low pay associated with these jobs and the lack of funding for treatment.
"So if the money isn't there and the jobs aren't there, people were going elsewhere," she said.
That's changing, however, she said. She's seeing a new generation of students with a passion for helping those who are struggling to recover from addiction.
And for many of them, there's a personal connection, she said. "What we're seeing now is almost every student coming in has either been touched personally, or with a family member or friend. Somebody has either really hit rock bottom or has died."
"And a lot of them, thank goodness, have gone into recovery on their own. The nice thing is they want to help others and keep them from going down that path," Bilodeau said.
And it's not only younger people who are coming into the field, she said.
"We also get some people who are a little later in life, who may have experienced their own child, or a niece or nephew, or a neighbor's child, succumb to the disease," she said.
MCC offers several certificate programs for individuals who want to get into substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health careers, including direct support services, substance misuse prevention, mental health support and recovery support. The college has a four-year federal grant to provide financial support for tuition and textbooks for students going into these fields.
Robin Hausheer, assistant professor in Plymouth State University's Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology, said she sees "a real passion for wanting to help others" in the students coming into the field now. She said they understand they won't get rich doing this work. "However, I think there is maybe the other kind of gratification that you get from just knowing that you're making a difference," she said.
Those rewards, she said, include "seeing the small steps that clients take, and seeing the differences that those small steps can have on an individual."
In response to the opioid crisis, PSU has added courses and a certificate program in addition to its clinical mental health counseling program, Hausheer said. Her department is also embedding information about addiction in more of its general coursework, she said, "because we feel like it's an extremely important piece of what many of our interns, and soon to be clinicians out in the field, are going to be working with."
PSU's clinical mental health program is one of only a handful in the country recently selected to get federal funding to support supervision and training of master's-level interns in SUD-related positions, Hausheer said. The funding also covers living expenses for students during their internships.
Stephan Burdette is finishing a master's degree in education at Plymouth State University and plans to continue graduate studies in school counseling and psychology. It's a second career for the 32-year-old Ohio native, who previously earned a master's in business and worked in sales. "It just really wasn't fitting for me," he said. "I felt called to do something else."
Burdette currently is a behavioral support specialist at Plymouth Elementary School, and he said he has seen firsthand how the opioid epidemic is affecting kids.
"It touches a place in your heart, at least for me," he said. "I think there's many kids out there, from young ages all the way up through adolescence and their later high school years, that are dealing with this in one way or another."
"My passion lies in providing these kids with the resources, with the love and with the care that maybe they're not getting elsewhere," Burdette said.
He wants to work in prevention, teaching kids self-regulation and other social skills that will help them cope with difficulties in later life. And his dream job is to work on education policy to increase the mental health services provided in the schools.
With all the attention on the opioid crisis, Burdette said an important message sometimes gets lost: "People do recover."
"People are able to change," he said, "and there's a lot of success out there in the recovery community."
MCC's Bilodeau has her own personal connection to the drug epidemic. "My 28-year-old nephew died from opiate addiction this past May," she said.
She says she tells her students about her nephew. "I tell them that it's emotionally difficult to know that I have the training and the background to help people - and I've helped many people - but I was unable to get my nephew to buy into the need for help," she said.
Her family's loss makes her even more passionate about prevention, Bilodeau said. She equates it to firefighting: "Rather than saying we need more firefighters to put a fire out once it starts, let's go out and teach people to prevent the fires."
It's the same with addiction, she said. "If we can try to work with young people and give them the skills, the education, the knowledge, to not even go down that path, wouldn't that be great?" she asked.
Theirs will not be an easy job, Bilodeau tells her students. "We're going to see things we wish we could unsee," she said. "But by giving people hope, trying to be there for them ... and giving them encouragement, you have to hope they're going to buy into it.
"And that they're going to be one of the ones that does get saved."