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Group counseling with clients receiving medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders

By Stephanie Maccombs September 6, 2018

Holistic care, or the integration of primary and behavioral health care along with other health care services, is becoming more common. In my experience as a mental health and chemical dependency counselor in an integrated care site, I have come to value the benefits that such wraparound services offer.

I now have the opportunity to consult with primary care providers, medication-assisted treatment providers, dentists, early childhood behavioral health providers and our county’s Women, Infants and Children team about their perspectives and hopes for clients. Every client has a treatment team, and each team member is only a few feet from my office door. I quickly realized the significant positive impact that close-quarters interdisciplinary collaboration has for many clients, and particularly those receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and counseling services for substance use disorders.

MAT is a treatment model that lends itself to the integrated care setting. As described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), MAT is the use of prescribed medications with concurrent counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders. MAT is used in the treatment of opioid, alcohol and tobacco use disorders. The medications, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, normalize brain chemistry to relieve withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. MAT is not the substitution of one drug for another. When medications in MAT are used appropriately, they have no adverse effects on a person’s mental or physical functioning.

Medications used in MAT for alcohol use disorder include disulfiram, acamprosate and naltrexone. Those used for tobacco use disorders include bupropion, varenicline and over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies. Medications used in MAT for opioid use disorders include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone — each of which must be dispensed through a SAMHSA-certified provider. Naltrexone is the only medication of the three that does not have the potential to be abused. Federal law mandates that those receiving MAT for opioid use disorder also receive concurrent counseling.

Embracing the advantages of integrated care

The combination of medication and therapy offers a holistic approach to treatment that is easily implemented in integrated care settings. The hope offered by the integration of services is embodied in an extraordinary case involving one of my clients who relapsed and arrived to counseling intoxicated, holding their chest. I was able to immediately consult with the client’s MAT provider, who ruled out the physical causes of chest pain after performing an electrocardiogram. Within 30 minutes, I was able to proceed with de-escalation of the client’s panic attack. The MAT provider educated the client on the next steps for care and on the dangers of using substances while taking MAT medications.

In a nonintegrated site, my only recourse would have been calling an ambulance for the client and a long wait at the hospital emergency room — and possibly a client who discontinued services. It is heartening when I can instead walk a client with symptoms of withdrawal across the hallway to the MAT provider or primary care provider, who can in turn offer targeted expert medical advice and medications to alleviate the symptoms.

Despite the substantial advantages that integrated care offers, however, most mental health and chemical dependency counselors are not adequately trained to provide effective counseling in integrated care settings for substance use disorders. In my experience, clients have better outcomes when receiving counseling services in conjunction with MAT. MAT alone can be effective, but the underlying thoughts and emotions that perpetuate use are not addressed unless concurrent counseling services are offered.

According to SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) No. 43, counseling for clients in MAT programs:

  • Provides support and guidance
  • Assists with compliance in using medications in MAT appropriately
  • Offers the opportunity to identify additional areas of need
  • May assist with retention in MAT programs
  • Offers motivation to clients

Although individual counseling is valuable, I am focusing on group counseling in this article because it offers similar benefits to individual counseling and is typically more cost-effective. In addition, TIP No. 43 notes that group counseling in MAT programs reduces feelings of isolation, involves feedback and accountability from peers, and enhances social skills training.

Resources for group counseling with MAT clients, or group counseling in integrated care settings, may not be easily accessible to many counselors-in-training or to practicing counselors. My goal is to share tips and resources with mental health and chemical dependency counselors that may be helpful in enhancing group counseling services for clients receiving MAT in integrated care settings. These tips and resources may also be useful to those providing group counseling services to MAT clients in settings that do not offer integrated care.

Tips and resources

1) Holistic education: MAT and integrated care are relatively new concepts for counselors, and we are still adapting. If it is new for us, it is new for our clients too. In the initial sessions of psychoeducational or process groups, the inclusion of education about MAT, the benefits of counseling in conjunction with MAT, and treatment in integrated care settings is essential.

Having access to a range of service providers is a benefit that clients should understand and utilize. Treatment team members can speak to the group about their role in client care and how their role may relate to the counseling group. For example, a dentist might help with appearance and self-esteem issues; an early childhood care provider might help the children of clients process situations arising from parental drug use; a primary care or MAT provider might link the client with hepatitis C treatment in addition to MAT. Such education can answer many questions that the group may have and help clients benefit from quality holistic care.

2) Dual licensure and continuing education: Many chemical dependency counselors refer out to mental health counselors and vice versa. In integrated care, it is ideal for counselors to be dually licensed. Dual licensure and training can assist counselors in identifying and addressing a variety of dynamics that may arise in group counseling with MAT clients.

For example, one client might have major depressive disorder and be using MAT for alcohol recovery, whereas another client might have symptoms of mania and be receiving MAT for opioid recovery. The way that counselors assist these clients may differ based on their knowledge of mental health diagnoses and the substance being used. Furthermore, counselors who are knowledgeable about these differing yet comorbid disorders will be better equipped to provide education to the group about the individualized and shared experiences of each member in recovery.

Some states have a combined mental health and chemical dependency counseling licensure board, whereas others have separate licensing boards. For more information about licensure, contact your state boards. If dual licensure is not plausible or desirable, I strongly recommended seeking continuing education in both mental health and chemical dependency counseling, as well as their relation to MAT.

3) Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) techniques: According to SAMHSA’s webpage about medication and counseling treatment, by definition, MAT includes counseling and behavioral strategies. The combination of MAT with these strategies can successfully treat substance use disorders.

One of SAMHSA’s recommended therapies is CBT, an evidence-based practice that has been shown time and time again to be effective in the treatment of substance use disorders. In an extensive review of the literature about the efficacy of using CBT for substance use disorders, R. Kathryn McHugh, Bridget A. Hearon and Michael W. Otto (2010) outlined a variety of interventions shown to be effective in addressing substance use disorders in both individual and group counseling. Those interventions included motivational interviewing, contingency management, relapse prevention interventions and combined treatment strategies.

Combined treatment refers to the use of CBT alongside pharmacotherapy, which includes MAT. Although some studies the authors reviewed indicated that MAT alone could be effective in treating substance use disorders, others demonstrated that combined treatment was most effective. Given SAMHSA’s recommendation, the literature review and my own personal experience, I believe that CBT may best benefit a group of MAT clients with substance use disorders in an integrated care setting.

Although CBT is suitable, I have learned that integrated care sites are much more fast-paced than the typical behavioral health counseling agency. Primary care and MAT appointments are as short as 15 minutes. In my work with our on-site behavioral health consultant, I noticed her quick and effective use of SFBT with individual clients. Although there is some research discussing the use and efficacy of SFBT in the treatment of substance use disorders, there is little information about using SFBT in groups with MAT clients in integrated care. This is a much-needed area for future research.

4) SAMHSA: SAMHSA has been mentioned various times throughout this article. That is a tribute to the value I place on the agency’s importance and usefulness. SAMHSA, in my opinion, is the best resource for exploring ways to enhance groups for clients receiving MAT. SAMHSA offers educational resources about a variety of substance use disorders; forms of MAT for different substances; comorbidities; and evidence-based behavioral health practices. SAMHSA is up to date, provides a variety of free resources for counselors and other professionals, and also has information about integrated care for professionals and clients.

According to SAMHSA’s TIP No. 43, groups commonly used with MAT clients include psychoeducational, skill development, cognitive behavioral and support groups. Suggested topics for individual counseling with MAT clients, which easily can be translated to group format, include feelings about coping with cravings and a changing lifestyle; how to identify and manage emergencies; creating reasonable goals; reviewing goal progress; processing legal concerns and how to report a problem; and exploring family concerns. Visit SAMHSA’s website (samhsa.gov) to enter a world of helpful information and resources for both personal professional development and client development.

5) Professional counseling organizations: Whereas SAMHSA offers information about substance use disorders, comorbidities, MAT, and individual and group counseling, the counseling profession’s codes of ethics and practice documents are crucial to the ethical provision of group counseling in this challenging field. Among the resources to consider are the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, the Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW) Best Practice Guidelines (which clarify application of the ACA Code of Ethics to the field of group work) and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling’s (ALGBTIC’s) competencies for providing group counseling to LGBT clients. ASGW also has practical resources to augment your group counseling skills through its Group Work Experts Share Their Favorite Activities series. Combining these resources with information acquired from SAMHSA and the tips in this article should prove helpful in designing and running effective groups for clients in MAT in integrated care settings.

Conclusion

As integrated care becomes more widespread, counselors must adapt their practice of counseling to the environment and to the full range of client needs. It is a counselor’s duty to utilize the benefits that integrated care has to offer, such as immediate and continual collaboration with treatment team members.

For clients in MAT, group counseling in integrated care can provide a multitude of benefits, including the opportunity to learn from each treatment team member, the opportunity to build community in the journey to recovery and accountability. To enhance group counseling in these settings, counselors might consider:

  • Including education from each service provider in the early stages of the group
  • Seeking dual licensure or relevant continuing education opportunities
  • Implementing theories that are suitable for the client issue and the setting
  • Using resources made available by SAMHSA and professional counseling organization such as ACA, ASGW and ALGBTIC

Implementing these tips and resources will result in a fresh and efficient group counseling experience for clients in MAT in integrated care settings.

 

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Stephanie Maccombs is a second-year doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at Ohio University. She is a licensed professional counselor and chemical dependency counselor assistant in Ohio. She has worked as a home-based addiction counselor and currently works in a federally qualified health center providing mental health and chemical dependency counseling services to adults participating in medication-assisted treatment. Contact her at sm846811@ohio.edu.

 

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