Help wanted: Addiction counselors in short supply
Jocksana Corona never thought she would become an addiction counselor.
Her parents struggled with addiction while Corona was a child, and she wanted to leave that world behind.
When she started taking college classes for a career in social services, Corona recalled, “I remember one of the first things I said was, ‘I know one field that I’ll never work in.’ And this is the field that actually brings me joy. This is the field where I really feel like I’m making a difference.”
Corona said her college classes taught her to see addiction as a treatable, manageable disease, like diabetes.
“It opened my mind to understand addiction. I found more compassion,” she said.
Corona is now a certified drug and alcohol counselor for OnTrack Rogue Valley. Fluent in Spanish and English, she helps clients from Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties.
The community desperately needs more addiction counselors, including ones who are bilingual.
Starting this fall, OnTrack is offering free classroom and on-the-job training to become an addiction counselor. Students in the program will get paid while they’re learning.
The program is open to people with college degrees and those without, young adults who want to train for a career and experienced people looking for a switch to tough but meaningful work.
OnTrack won a four-year, $2.2 million federal grant to launch the training and certification program.
Southern Oregon and the nation face a shortage of mental health workers, including ones who specialize in addiction treatment.
OnTrack has a 40% vacancy rate for jobs in which staff members work directly with people in its residential addiction treatment centers, said OnTrack Executive Director Sommer Wolcott.
“We’re not getting applicants for those positions,” she said. “As a result of that, we’ve had to reduce access to our residential programs multiple times and limit the number of clients we can serve — even though we have empty beds.”
OnTrack has a wait list of 100 people for its residential addiction treatment programs, Wolcott said.
Through the free OnTrack training program, she said, people can start new careers without going to college and taking on student loan debt.
Corona said she juggled going to college, working, raising her family and squeezing in time for internships to enter the field.
OnTrack’s fast-track program offers a smoother path.
Corona encourages people to think about entering the field, especially those who are bilingual and understand Latino culture.
Born in Mexico and raised in the United States, Corona said alcohol is seen as a natural part of weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, funerals and other events. Many Latino people don’t see alcohol as a drug, and they shun people who develop drinking problems.
“Substance use is more common in our community than our community would like to acknowledge,” Corona said.
She said her mother broke free from addiction years ago. Corona still sees the struggles her mother and other relatives endured when she helps OnTrack clients.
Chris Tyler became a drug and alcohol counselor through a different route. He’s celebrating seven years of being clean and sober.
A counselor at OnTrack’s Dad’s Program for fathers and their kids noticed Tyler’s compassionate, energetic personality and encouraged him to become a support staff worker.
OnTrack then provided training for Tyler to become a counselor and recovery mentor.
Before getting the $2.2 million federal grant, OnTrack was able to train about five people a year. Now it hopes to enroll and train 30 people annually to become certified alcohol and drug counselors, qualified mental health associates and peer support specialists.
Training to get peer support specialist certification takes three months, while training to be a certified alcohol and drug counselor takes about 18 months.
Becoming a qualified mental health associate requires a combination of three years of training and experience. People who join the training program will finish at different times depending on their previous experience, according to OnTrack.
The trainees will be placed in OnTrack’s residential, outpatient or transitional care centers, or with community partner sites like La Clinica’s Birch Grove Health Center.
Tyler said compassion is the key to being a good addiction counselor.
“It really starts with having a kind heart and being a compassionate person and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes,” he said. “Addiction can be really painful and uncomfortable. You have to be willing to be vulnerable with clients.”
Some people who’ve battled addiction fear they could relapse if they enter the field and hear about alcohol and drugs all day.
Tyler said people can’t neglect their own recovery while helping others fight addiction. Continuing to attend group meetings for people in recovery and talking to supportive people is key.
He said people in recovery can serve as role models to show others that life after addiction is possible — and good.
“There is a need. A lot of people have a story to tell that’s going to save someone’s life. You have something to give,” Tyler said.
He said the best part of his job is watching the transformation in people as they fight addiction and rebuild their lives. They get jobs, find apartments or reunite with their children who had to go into foster care or live with relatives. The light comes back in their eyes.
“They’re starting to smile again. There’s nothing better than that feeling,” Tyler said.
He said counselors have to practice self-care to stay mentally and physically healthy.
Tyler rides his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, spends time with his family, plays with dogs, visits the coast, watches movies and finds other enjoyable activities to take his mind off work, recharge and stay grounded.
He said people don’t have to have been addicted themselves to be good counselors. Everyone has gone through struggles and traumatic experiences that can make them more compassionate.
Marcia Sandoval didn’t struggle with addiction, but she is a drug and alcohol counselor who rose to become the Josephine County outpatient program manager for OnTrack.
When she was still an intern, she heard stories from clients about their struggles.
“I started understanding what recovery is,” Sandoval said. “I’ve been able to empathize and feel their struggle and see the treatment we provide work. They can say, ‘You haven’t walked in my shoes.’ But I have experience with what does and doesn’t work.”
She said addiction counselors need to be flexible, compassionate and have thick skin and not take things personally.
Wolcott, OnTrack’s executive director, said the training will help people learn to handle the job and interact with clients. Trainees will work alongside experienced professionals and learn how to help clients from different backgrounds who’ve probably all experienced trauma.
“If a person is reacting, assume that they are experiencing anxiety or they’ve had past experiences, rather than assuming that they’re being noncompliant or this is willful behavior,” Wolcott said. “Assume that people are doing the best they can — and something is getting in the way.”
She said good addiction counselors are compassionate, willing to learn and grow, dedicated and have enough self-awareness to realize when they’re having a personal reaction to a situation and should step back.
Lori Brock Stewart, an addiction counselor who is program manager for the Dad’s Program, went through the residential Mom’s Program 18 years ago when she was struggling with addiction.
She did on-the-job training through OnTrack.
“I wanted to know more about addiction and why the brain works the way it does and why people continue to use despite the negative consequences,” Brock Stewart said.
She said she now understands the obsessive-compulsive aspect of addiction. If people don’t grapple with that aspect, they might beat drug and alcohol addiction but turn to gambling, compulsive shopping and overspending, unhealthy relationships or other destructive behavior.
Brock Stewart said working in the addiction treatment field isn’t easy.
“It’s not for the faint of heart. You sometimes see difficult things in this career. A mom could hand you her brand new baby and say she’s not ready to parent. You have to honor her choice. She’s doing what’s best for the child,” Brock Stewart said.
But she said the need for addiction counselors is great. All the drug treatment organizations in the Rogue Valley have unfilled vacancies, she said.
Corona said people should listen to their own hearts and think about stepping forward to help.
“If something is telling you, ‘Hey, give this a try,’ then trust that inner voice,” she said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.