A new program at Virginia Highlands certifies students to be drug addiction counselors

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ABINGDON, Va. (WFXR) – Illicit drug use has been increasing in many areas of the country, especially when it comes to the dangerous use of opioids. In 2016, former Virginia Governor Terry McAulie declared the Virginia opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency. With a new college program, Virginia Highlands is looking to help address substance abuse problems in the state.

“There are lots of different layers to the problem; from poverty to unemployment to prescription abuse. There are lots of different factors. Poor choices on the parts of people who choose to abuse. So lots of different factors contributing to that in Virginia, particularly in Southwest Virginia,” says Dr. Beth Page, Dean of Professional and Technical Studies at Virginia Highlands Community College.

Source: CDC WONDER

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 1, 241 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in Virginia in 2017 – a rate of 14.8 deaths per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons. With Virginia’s current opioid crisis, the need for substance abuse counselors, especially in rural areas, has increased significantly.

Beginning this fall, the two-semester training program will focus on preparing students to be certified substance abuse counselor-assistants in the field of addiction treatment.

Dr. Page says the program was formed out of a community request.

“Our human services advisory committee, members of that committee who work in different agencies in the area, really approached us about the need for a training program, an educational program for the field of substance abuse treatment,” says Dr. Page.

Like many parts of the country, substance abuse problems are not new to the Abingdon region. With less access to treatment programs than other areas of Virginia, college officials hope to change that in response to a high need for those programs.

According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau Labor Statistics, jobs in the area of substance abuse counseling is expected to grow 23% between 2016-2026, at a rate much faster than the average for all occupational jobs.

Every evening from Monday through Thursday, students will be learning all areas when it comes to recognizing symptoms of substance abuse, understanding different treatment programs, and how to properly bring someone into an addiction center to begin the treatment process. In order for students to secure the Virginia Certified Substance Abuse Counselor Assistant (CSAC-A) credential, they need to complete 300 hours of training: 120 hours in a classroom setting and 180 hours in an internship through a local agency, like Highlands Community Services (HCS).

Dr. Page says students are excited to take part in the school’s newest program. She hopes the program will grow in enrollment in the next five years as she continues to see students pursuing needed fields of study regarding mental health.

“It brings awareness to the problem. And the more treatments providers that you have available, then obviously the more services that treatment programs can provide,” says Dr. Page.

For more information on Virginia’s opioid crisis, visit the Virginia Department of Health.

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