According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, Tennessee’s opioid death rate is about 50 percent higher than the national average. In 2016, Tennesseans were prescribed opioids at a rate that was nearly 70 percent higher than the national average.
While some health experts in the region say those numbers are plateauing and falling in parts of the state, the work to combat this public health crisis in its epicenter continues.
Many of those still struggling with and succumbing to opioid addiction live in Northeast Tennessee, which is why Milligan College recently set out to expand its Master of Science in Counseling program to include a concentration in addictions counseling, beginning this fall.
“Our addiction (rates) to alcohol and other substances in this area are high, so we know the need is there,” Dr. Rebecca Sapp, director of Milligan's program, said. “We’ve had students over the years ask about how to specialize in addictions, and we’ve had an elective course in addiction counseling for a while now, but just one course.”
With the help of Ballad Health and BlueCross BlueShield, Sapp said Milligan will now be able to help meet the demand for more licensed addiction counselors — a need that keeps increasing exponentially. As the program looks to receiving accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, Sapp said she is looking forward to seeing Milligan set a new precedent in the area when it comes to specialized addiction counseling.
“When we were looking at our program and the needs in the area, we looked into this subspecialty to pursue next, and our research found that there really are no CACREP accredited master’s-level addiction counseling programs in our area,” she said.
Sapp said addiction is a multi-faceted issue, and it often coincides with other co-occurring mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and others. The new concentration aims to prepare future counselors for different ways of tackling this complex mental health issue through evidence-driven intervention methods.
“It’ll be equipping students to understand a variety of approaches because one size does not fit all. They’ll be trained in various theories of counseling and various approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy and others,” she said. “But as a part of their general training and all those theories involved in counseling in general, they’ll also be getting specific information that will better equip them to understand addiction and specifically work with the different nuances people with addiction have.
“It’s not unusual to find addiction going along with those mental health problems often as a way of coping with those issues.”
Through the new concentration, students will also be able to seek other licensing as counselors in addition to receiving their degrees in addiction counseling. This will effectively double their credentials and experience before going into the field, according to Sapp.
Trish Baise, Ballad Health’s vice president of behavioral health services, said the partnership with BlueCross and Milligan will be considered the latest new step in working together to combat the region’s opioid and addiction epidemic.
“The problem of substance-use disorder in our region is complex, involving medical, social and behavioral aspects, so a multi-pronged approach is necessary in order to make the greatest impact,” she said in May. “Following Ballad Health’s work with (East Tennessee State University) to help create an addiction fellowship program at the Quillen College of Medicine, this new addiction counseling program at Milligan will help to round out the spectrum of intervention resources in the region. We believe it’s important to strengthen the pipeline of professionals for both the medical treatment and counseling aspects of addiction.”
For more information on Milligan’s counseling program, visit www.milligan.edu/msc.