Pamela Duff ’17 always knew she would become a counselor. As she watched people around her struggle with addiction, she realized she wanted to find a career that would allow her to utilize her skills to help people recover from addictions and learn healthier coping skills.
Duff graduates this May with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She’s one of eight students from the first cohort of the Opioid Workforce Expansion program, which launched in August 2020. The programs are part of an umbrella of programs funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand and enhance community-based, hands-on training focused on opioid-use disorder and other substance-use disorders. Graduate students enrolled in the UCF clinical mental health counseling and the marriage, couples and family therapy programs are eligible to participate.
In 2017, Florida death rates due to opioids laced with fentanyl and fentanyl analog increased 56% from the previous year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Not everybody gets to participate in these grant programs, but I think this experience made me such a better counselor,” says Duff, who earned her bachelor’s in psychology at UCF. “They’re giving you training that they’re paying for. It was great professional development. You get medical training on top of your counseling preparation. It really diversifies what you’re able to do and understand.”
The goal is to expand the behavioral workforce, specifically within the Central Florida area, where drug overdoses related to opioids are high and the number of mental health professionals with specialized training is low. In 2017, Florida death rates due to opioids laced with fentanyl and fentanyl analog increased 56% from the previous year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In Orange County alone, that rate increased by 78%. However, Orange, Seminole, Brevard and Osceola counties are considered “mental health professional shortage areas” by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Behavioral health is a difficult field,” says Bryce Hagedorn, a professor of counselor education and co-principal investigator of the UCF-Aspire Counselor Training programs in the Integrated Care for Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders grant. “One of the problems with the field of community mental health, which often serves the un- or underinsured, is it’s common to have the people who are most in crisis being served by those with the least experience, which is generally interns. What sometimes happens is once people get licensed, they move out of this field and into private practice. The Opioid Workforce Expansion program is designed to help equip, train and incentivize clinicians to stay in the community mental health field so that they are prepared to address the multiple concerns of a high-needs population.”
Students who participate in the opioid and addiction-focused program spend two semesters completing paid internships at inpatient, outpatient and residential addiction-based centers. The program provides students with the extensive training and faculty support needed to learn about prevention, treatment and recovery services for individuals, including children and adolescents, who have opioid use disorder and other substance use disorders. Over the next three years, an additional 22 UCF graduate students will receive specialized training within this workforce expansion program.
“Opioid-related overdose rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic, so this training is more important than ever.” — Dayle Jones, associate professor of counselor education
“Addictions, particularly related to the opioid epidemic, are extremely prevalent in the mental health field today,” says Dayle Jones, associate professor of counselor education and co-principal investigator on the grant. “Opioid-related overdose rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic, so this training is more important than ever. Having this experience in addictions treatment settings will be very helpful for the students’ career preparation as mental health counselors.”
Duff completed her internship at an outpatient medication-assisted treatment facility. People who are struggling with opioid addiction come to receive doses of medication to help them with their cravings. Florida requires that individuals who seek treatment at dosing clinics pair their medication with counseling, which is where Duff came in. She had sessions with clients, co-facilitated a group therapy session three times a week and participated in drug court, where clients undergo a treatment plan with strict guidelines to expunge their illegal activity rather than serve time in jail.
“The counseling program prepared me for running groups,” says Duff. “We were taught the principles of how to get people to talk and how to get people to do therapeutic work together.”
Through her internship, Duff was able to learn the different types of medication used to treat opioid and other substance addictions. She learned the dosages and how they interact with a person’s mental health.
“Addiction counseling is a very difficult environment,” says Duff. “You have to build rapport with clients who are sometimes ambivalent about treatment and recovery.”
She embraced the challenge of connecting with her clients and will be taking all that she learned to her job as an addictions counselor at an outpatient medication-assisted treatment facility in North Carolina.
Marissa Siegel, another member of the cohort who will be graduating with her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, wanted to become a counselor so she could be an advocate for children and adolescents, especially those with addictions or mental health disorders. She wants to help them find their voice. Siegel spent part of her grant experience at the Seminole County Corrections Facility’s opioid unit, where inmates who struggle with severe addictions are able to seek help.
“That was an amazing experience for me. I absolutely loved working in the jail,” says Siegel, who is currently applying for jobs in the Orlando area as counselor for children and families. “I was able to talk to such a vast majority of people through the grant program, including talking to inmates and seeing what their experiences were. It allowed me to see the field of counseling in a different light.”
Another goal of the Opioid Workforce Expansion program is to introduce students to the concept of collaboration and integrated healthcare.
“We learned how avenues such as school, social network, family, living environment and medications have an impact on one’s mental health. There are so many different aspects at play, and we were taught to identify that mental health is not just one thing,” says Siegel. “Working to integrate mental health into all of these different avenues is so beneficial to the client’s overall quality of care.”
“Working to integrate mental health into all of these different avenues is so beneficial to the client’s overall quality of care.” — Marissa Siegel, UCF student
Siegel learned how the facilities put together client treatment plans. She was able to sit in meetings where multiple people worked together for the best interest of the inmate. These meetings were to discuss the inmates’ transitional plan after release, how they were doing within the specialized program and what the next step for medication looks like.
This integrated care education also took the form of working alongside other graduate students from the College of Medicine, the School of Nursing, the School of Social Work, the School of Kinesiology and Physical Therapy, and the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy to create client treatment plans.
“It was interesting to see their perspective on a client,” says Siegel. “The client would say the same thing to all of us in the group, but we all had different opinions and thoughts on where we should go with the treatment plan.”
Students were given the task of not only collaborating with individuals from different professions who have varied opinions, but they were also given a platform in which to flex their voice and advocate for a client’s mental health — practice for their post-graduation jobs.
“They’re advocating for themselves for a place at the decision-making table,” says Hagedorn. “It’s actually moving the profession forward as these medical professionals and students get to see the value of behavioral health.”