First graduates from federally funded UK program to build workforce to address substance-use disorder are at work

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By Lindsey Piercy and Kaitlin Brooks

University of Kentucky

The first students to participate in program aimed at combating Kentucky’s opioid epidemic have graduated and gone to work.

The College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky received $1.3 million from the federal Opioid Workforce Expansion Program (OWEP), a nearly $400 million effort to establish and expand access to substance-use-disorder and mental-health services.

Appalachia has been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. The goal of the three-year UK project, “Building Substance Use Disorder Workforce Capacity in the Appalachia Region,” is to provide the training needed to address behavioral-health needs in those under-served communities.

The money funded stipends for 16 students who studied at 13 agencies in 13 Kentucky counties. The project is a collaborative effort with the College of Education. Students from social work and counseling psychology are integrated in care settings to receive specialized training and experience with treatments for substance-use disorder and opioid-use disorder.
“This project allows us to continue to build relationships and expand practicum sites to better serve those impacted by substance use disorder,” said Kalea Benner, the principal investigator on the project. “It helps those living in the underserved communities of the Appalachian region.”

The project aims to train 54 Master of Social Work students and 12 counseling psychology practitioners to meet the needs of those experiencing substance use disorder in under-served communities.

“The OWEP stipend represented an opportunity for me to subsidize my education and access specialized training for tele-behavioral health and substance abuse in rural areas,” recent graduate Chris Boyles said. “I am fortunate to apply that training while serving as an acute care social worker on an inpatient psychiatric unit at a rural hospital in northeast Kentucky.”

Alix Burke, an MSW graduate and a senior social worker at UK HealthCare in the Infectious Disease Department, said learning best practices for tele-behavioral health “was incredibly valuable when covid-19 safety precautions were implemented, and all counseling staff had to transition to remote therapy practices.”

More than 2 million Americans are battling opioid addiction, and Kentucky ranks fifth in the nation for opioid-overdose deaths. These figures likely underestimated, so they probably fail to capture the full extent of the damage of the epidemic.

“Those battling substance use disorder require specialized treatment, which often includes counseling,” Benner said. “As the nation is grasping to help people achieve long-term sobriety, mental-health professionals are taking on increased importance.”

Applications are now open for the 2020-21 academic year. For more information, visit this website.