By Kevin Doyle, EdD
In my three and a half decades as counselor, I have been privileged to work with some amazing people courageously addressing the problems associated with their use of substances. We called this “substance abuse” back in the 80s when I got my start, and now we use terms like “substance use disorders,” or “addiction,” but regardless of the terminology, people with these issues remain highly stigmatized and are often the last group with whom professional healthcare providers choose to work.
In fact, it is it not unusual to hear things like, “I don’t work with substance abuse,” or “I can’t work with those people,” or even “those people can’t be helped.” Were this any other diagnosis or condition, statements such as these might lead to an individual provider being brought before a licensing board for discrimination, but with substance use it is, sadly, often par for the course.
This should not be surprising. Unfortunately, healthcare practitioners can be the worst perpetuators of stigma. David Mee-Lee, a well-known writer and trainer of those working in the addiction treatment field, has noted that, for example, many of us use terms like “dirty urine” to describe what should simply be referred to as a positive drug test, much like any other medical test.
So, given the ongoing opioid epidemic that shows no real signs of abating, the question is “who will do the work?” If attitudes such as those noted above are allowed to continue and not challenged, where will the workforce of tomorrow come from?
With over 100,000 overdose deaths annually in the United States alone, there is clearly a critical need for counselors, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers to address this epidemic. I count myself as fortunate to have been a small part of the journey for the people I have worked with as a counselor, and have learned so much from them — and am even more fortunate to be in my role in the administration of one of the leading addiction counselor training programs in the world.
But the question remains: who will do the work?
We need committed, passionate, knowledgeable professionals, and we need to reject the perpetuation of stigma in all its forms to help grow the workforce to undertake the massive challenge of helping those with substance use disorders to receive the help they need to enter and sustain recovery. The treatment of this condition must be prioritized through funding, training, academic programming, loan forgiveness programs, and whatever other incentives might emerge — and the outright denigration of those dealing with substance use disorders must not be tolerated.