During a single afternoon this past August, 26 people overdosed on opioids in Huntington, a small city in West Virginia with a population of approximately 50,000. Bolstered by naloxone — an opioid antidote that often can revive overdose victims who have stopped breathing — and too much practice in overdose scenarios, police and paramedics were able to save all 26 people. However, the danger of overdosing is so great — and so common — that many of those 26 individuals are likely to overdose again, some fatally.
Scenes of opioid overdoses are playing out again and again in cities, towns and rural areas across the United States. So many Americans are in thrall to opioids — which encompass both prescription pain relievers and the illegal drug heroin — that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared opioid abuse an epidemic. According to the CDC, in 2015 (the latest year data were collected) more than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses, a number that is quadruple the rate of deaths in 1999. In fact, from 2000 to 2015, more than half a million deaths were attributed to opioid overdose. West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio and Rhode Island are the states with the highest rates of opioid deaths, but no state, no socioeconomic status and no racial or ethnic group can claim to remain untouched by the opioid epidemic.
“We’re in danger of losing a generation,” asserted Carol Smith at an April congressional briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Counseling Association to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic and the role professional counselors can play in stemming the tide. Smith, a member of ACA and a past president of the West Virginia Counseling Association, is a counseling professor and the coordinator of the violence, loss and trauma certificate of studies at Marshall University — which happens to be located in Huntington.
Birth of an epidemic
The CDC numbers show that the opioid epidemic has been gathering steam for a long time. Public awareness of the epidemic has grown gradually with media reports of more fatal overdoses, including the startling 2016 death of music legend Prince by overdose from nonprescribed fentanyl. More than a year later, the full story is not yet known, but the singer and musician had reportedly been taking prescription opioids for chronic pain for many years, which put him at risk for developing an addiction.
In fact, for many of the people who become addicted to opioids, this is how it begins — with a prescription for painkillers. According to the CDC, prescriptions for opioids in the U.S. have quadrupled since the year 2000, despite there being no corresponding overall increase in the amount of pain that Americans report. Experts say a combination of factors has driven the sharp rise in opioid prescriptions. In the late 1990s, in a push to improve pain management, the medical community began considering pain a fifth vital sign, along with body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate and blood pressure. The prescription drug OxyContin debuted in 1996 and was marketed as less addictive than other opioids. Research that has since been discredited asserted that patients in severe pain had a low tendency to become addicted to opioids.
“That was simply not true,” says Kirk Bowden, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and ACA fellow in Phoenix who has specialized in addictions for almost 30 years. “They found that [severe pain] patients did start to become addicted — very early on. You can become addicted even if you follow the physician’s directions.”
Experts say that certain populations are particularly at risk for becoming addicted to opioids, including individuals who have a history of trauma, mental illness or other substance abuse. Medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, dentists and veterinarians are at increased risk because they have easy access to opioids through their work. Those in the military are also at greater risk because they are so often treated for pain.
As Smith points out, opioids are particularly addictive because of the effect they have on a person’s mind and body. “We are all biologically vulnerable,” she says.
Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the body to reduce the sensation to pain. As they do this, they cause physical changes in the body’s own opioid system. Over time, the body may become physically dependent on opioids. Even a weeklong prescription for opioids can cause withdrawal at cessation. In addition, opioids affect the brain’s reward system and can cause a feeling of euphoria. This combination of effects means that long-term use is itself a risk factor for physical dependence and addiction. A study reported in the March 17 issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that in patients prescribed opioids for the first time, the likelihood of them still being on the opioid within a year’s time increased after just six days of use and then again at 31 days.
Unfortunately, Smith Says, doctors and dentists commonly prescribe 30-, 60- or 90-day supplies of opioids to help patients alleviate instances of even short-term pain, such as the removal of wisdom teeth.
Some people who become addicted while on painkillers turn to heroin once their prescription runs out or when other opioids become too expensive, says ACA member Kevin Doyle, an LPC who has a private practice that specializes in group work for clients who have substance use disorders. It is becoming more common for heroin to be mixed with fentanyl, which is a much stronger opioid. Frequently, he notes, users either don’t know about the fentanyl or misjudge the dose and end up overdosing.
Addiction as a lifelong illness
There is a common misconception, not just on the part of the average person but also by many health professionals, that “getting sober” (clearing the body of the addictive substance) and recovery are the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth, say substance abuse experts.
All of the counseling professionals interviewed for this article say that the standard for addiction treatment for both inpatient and outpatient programs is typically 30 days to get biologically clean. Clients are then sent back into their home environments, where they can easily become addicted again in the absence of follow-up support.
“You hear numbers about treatment programs that have outrageous treatment success rates, like 98 percent, but they don’t say where people are five years later,” Bowden notes. “People new to [addiction and recovery] don’t realize how addiction encompasses your whole life. … Long-term support is critical.”
ACA member Larry Ashley, an LPC with more than 40 years in the field of addictions, agrees. He says that as hard as getting “sober” or physically clean may be, it is actually the easiest part of recovery. “Recovery is a lifestyle change,” he says. “It’s important that people understand the difference between sobriety and recovery.”
Smith adds that addiction is most often treated like an acute disease when it is actually a chronic one, and the challenges don’t just stem from staying off the substance.
Doyle agrees. “There is a tendency to think of this [addiction treatment] as a single episode — that once you take care of that, we are done,” he says. “But, unfortunately, it’s a lifelong disease, and like any other disease, there may be episodes when a person doesn’t take as good of care of themselves as [other times]. I tell the client upfront, ‘We don’t see a cure, but this is something that can be managed.’”
The cost of not seeking help for addiction is high, and the opioid epidemic has been particularly devastating. ACA member Rick Carroll, a counselor who helped develop the substance abuse certification program at Lindsey Wilson College, has seen many people lose everything to opioids. And like a bomb blast, the destruction from addiction is not limited to the person hooked on opioids — it spreads outward.
In fact, the fallout from opioid abuse is what spurred the state of Kentucky, where the main campus of Lindsey Wilson College is located, to fund Carroll’s certification program. Currently, 1 in 4 babies born in Kentucky is diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome — a range of physical problems that result from being exposed to opioids in the womb. The babies and mothers receive any needed addiction treatment and health care at the hospital, but there is also a need for clinicians who can help mothers cope with bonding and other family issues while undergoing detox.
Carroll also does parental assessments in Virginia for social services and the local court system. He sees many parents who have lost their children to foster care because of opioid abuse and estimates that a third of these clients will never regain custody of their children.
Many problems associated with addiction cannot be addressed with a 30-day program because recovery involves rebuilding a life, say the counselors interviewed for this article. In many instances, these clients have a lot to “relearn,” Carroll says.
“In our program, we talk about meeting people where they are at,” he says. “Which stage of change are they in? Do they say that they have a [substance abuse] problem? Where are they in recognizing the problem?”
People often take substances such as opioids as a way to cope, so counselors can help these clients by teaching them healthy coping skills, Carroll says. This starts by teaching them to be mindful and pay attention to their emotions, particularly becoming aware of when they are experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. Journaling can be helpful as a kind of daily log of thoughts and feelings, says Carroll, adding that some clients feel more connected to their emotions when they write them down.
As clients learn to be mindful of their emotions, they also need to be presented with new ways to cope, Carroll says. Among the tools he shares with clients are relaxation techniques and systematic desensitization. Carroll says that counselors should talk to clients about the events and everyday situations that are most stressful for them and have them practice breathing and other relaxation techniques that they can continue to use on their own. Counselors can also teach clients how to better deal with conflict through role-play and empty chair exercises, he says.
People who struggle with addiction are also often dealing with significant cognitive distortions, such as thinking that they are damaged goods, Carroll explains. Counselors can help clients examine these beliefs to see either that the beliefs aren’t valid or to clearly identify problems that clients can work on.
It is also important for counselors to understand the dynamics of these clients’ family systems, Carroll says. In some cases, family relationships have been broken or the client’s family members are struggling with addiction themselves. In either case, the client is faced with a lack of support and a potentially triggering environment, he says.
Carroll advises the use of genograms to explore family dynamics, looking in particular for toxic relationships or indications of a multigenerational history of substance abuse or mental illness. Through the use of genograms, “clients can see the roots [of their difficulties] and ask, ‘What can I create in my life right now to break the cycle?’” Carroll says.
Ashley, who also specializes in combat trauma, says that clients struggling against addiction also need to learn different ways to alter their consciousness and feel good. “People who have been addicted for a long time don’t know how to have fun,” he says. Ashley advises asking these clients about the activities that they used to enjoy and encouraging them to find or rediscover hobbies because they need alternatives to getting high.
“Exercise is good as long as they don’t overdo it,” he says. “Reading, bowling, going for a walk, art — it just depends. If you never had any experience [with hobbies], you have to try. If it doesn’t work, keep on trying.”
Ashley says clients also need to develop a plan to stay sober. These plans address elements such as how to stay away from situations or people that trigger or encourage substance use and abuse, how to handle stress and other emotions without opioids or other drugs, what to do when the urge to use strikes and how to occupy the time that previously went to scoring and taking drugs. Although counselors can assist clients with these plans, Ashley says it is equally important that they help clients find additional support through avenues such as group therapy, 12-step support meetings and other treatment programs if necessary.
Carroll agrees. “Counselors need to work closely with other health providers, medical professionals, social workers and school personnel,” he says. “It’s very imperative that you don’t work within a bubble. Get the individual the best help that you can.”
Counselors can serve as a vital source of support for clients in recovery, but many practitioners have little or no training in addictions work. Bowden firmly believes that counselors need intensive training to work with those struggling with addictions.
Smith asserts that the grip of the opioid epidemic is so strong that all counselors must learn how to work with these clients. Likewise, counselors who specialize in substance abuse issues note that all practitioners will encounter clients who are struggling with addiction, even if addiction isn’t the presenting issue. Smith adds that clients may not reveal substance abuse problems right away, meaning that by the time the subject of addiction comes up, a therapeutic bond likely will have been established already with the counselor.
That is not to suggest, however, that the proper training isn’t important. Counselors should seek out additional courses on addictions work, either locally or online. Bowden and Ashley urge counselors to undergo supervision and to find a specialist with whom they can work. Counselors can also get involved with professional organizations such as the International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors, a division of ACA.
“No matter what your practice is based on, most of your people are going to have addiction issues, whether obvious or not,” Ashley says. “So get to know people in the 12-step community. Look in the Yellow Pages or go online and Google ‘support groups,’ including options that aren’t [connected to] AA [Alcoholics Anonymous].”
When working with individuals who are battling addiction, Smith says, counselors also shouldn’t forget to simply call on the fundamentals of counseling. “A person needs to know that they are in safe company, with someone who is empathetic and who understands at least a little bit what they are going through and is willing to act as a guide.”
Larry Ashley, Kirk Bowden, Kevin Doyle and Carol Smith each served as panelists (along with Dr. Melinda Campopiano of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) at the congressional briefing on opioid abuse in April that was sponsored by ACA. For a report on that briefing, read the online exclusive, “‘We’re in danger of losing a generation,’” by Bethany Bray at CT Online (ct.counseling.org).
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “Hidden in plain sight,” by Laurie Meyers, January 2015
- “Techniques for counseling clients who have chronic pain,” by Betsy Farver-Smith (Member Insights), August 2015
Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Opioid Use Disorder” by Rachel M. O’Neill
- “Substance Abuse and Addictive Disorders” by Gerald A. Juhnke & Kathryn L. Henderson
- “Chronic Pain Counseling” by Stephanie T. Burns
- A Contemporary Approach to Substance Use Disorders and Addiction Counseling, second edition, by Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
- Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions by Robert L. Smith
- “The Latest on Addiction Counseling, Co-Occurring has Replaced Dual-Diagnosis and Why is Crack so Addictive Anyway?” with Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
- International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors (iaaoc.org)
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.