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Home | News | UTEP Social Work Students learn about Substance Abuse, Road to Recovery
UTEP's Master of Social Work (MSW) students in the Drug and Recovery class are learning skills to help drug-dependent clients work toward recovery. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

UTEP Social Work Students learn about Substance Abuse, Road to Recovery

Nearly 20.3 million people in the United States struggled with a substance use disorder in 2018, yet only 2.1 million of them received treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Substance abuse is one of the nation’s major public health challenges, which has increased the need for well-trained substance abuse counselors.

At The University of Texas at El Paso, Master of Social Work (MSW) students in the Drug and Recovery class, are learning skills to help drug-dependent clients work toward recovery.

The class supplements lessons in drug use education, drug use prevention and drug use rehabilitation and treatment with speakers from the community who work day-to-day with individuals struggling with addiction and their families.

“I want you guys to think of one of your favorite things to do, whether it’s playing golf, a particular game, (eating) potato chips or chocolate cake,” said Carolina Gonzalez, outpatient services administrator at Aliviane, Inc., a nonprofit behavioral health services organization in El Paso, to students during class on Oct. 28, 2019.

“Just think of something that you really love to do and then think that you have to stop doing it,” she said. “And the reason I say that is because substance use used to be looked at as a moral disorder. It used to be looked at like there is something wrong with the person … . So, if you’re not in the field or you’ve never struggled or you don’t know anyone who’s ever struggled, it’s very easy to say just stop. What are you doing? Just stop. And the person wants to stop believe me. … And, so, whenever something like that comes across your path, especially as professionals, we’re working to do away with stigma, but no matter how hard we try there is still stigma.”

Speakers such as Gonzalez share their perspectives with students to help them better understand the challenges to providing substance abuse prevention and treatment to addicts struggling with their disease. Other presenters include the Drug Enforcement Administration and the UTEP School of Pharmacy.

“By bringing in all of these organizations, you get a better idea of what addiction is doing to that person,” said MSW student Richard Hernandez. “This is one of the most eye-opening and humanizing classes because you really get to understand the people and the addiction. We can’t just judge them. It’s important to understand the precursors leading up to their addiction. They need help and you shouldn’t stigmatize them or shun them.”

For nearly 50 years, Aliviane has provided promotion, prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery programs in West Texas. Nearly 79,000 clients benefited from Aliviane’s services from September 2018 to August 2019. More than 1,100 clients received treatment and 77,685 clients received prevention and intervention services.

“If you look at recovery, the word itself conveys that you’re grabbing something back,” said Guillermo Valenzuela, chief corporate officer for Aliviane. “I understood that people wanted to recover something and being happy and living healthy is what we hope to give to folks that suffer from this disease. And now the field itself is changing, and it’s recognizing that in order for you to do that, treatment definitely plays a part that is just as important as prevention, intervention and recovery. So even though we’re better known for treatment, you could see by the numbers where we make the most impact is on prevention and intervention.”

This is the second time in 10 years that UTEP Social Work Professor Mark Lusk, Ed.D., has offered the Drug and Recovery class. A licensed substance abuse counselor who used to coordinate a drug treatment center, Lusk said the world of substance abuse counseling, prevention and treatment has undergone a major shift during his career, which the speakers from Aliviane captured fully during their presentation.

“A critical part of our job is prevention and education because it’s much more difficult to rehabilitate a person who has a drug focused lifestyle than to prevent someone from moving into that path,” Lusk said. “It’s a very costly and long-term solution and often drug treatment fails because of the person’s inability to come to grips with how this is affecting their lifestyle and their relationship with people. So, that’s why we focus not only on rehabilitation, but prevention and education. Chronic drug use can rupture social relationships, sometimes irreparably, so it’s crucial to provide drug users with alternative pro-social pathways to find their rewards. Recovery is fundamentally based on wellness, both physical and psychological.”

During their presentation, Gonzalez and Valenzuela used their real-world experience and examples to illustrate these concepts. They touched on topics such as the 10 guiding principles of recovery and motivational interviewing, a clinical approach that helps people with mental health and substance use disorders and other chronic conditions make positive behavioral changes to support better health and well-being.

Based on ‘motivational interviewing,’ Gonzalez advised students to always ask clients for permission to interview them rather than assume they want to talk.

“When people come into treatment the majority of times, people don’t want to be there,” she said. “People don’t stop using drugs or alcohol because it doesn’t feel good. People stop abusing because they’re tired of the consequences or because someone else is giving them ultimatums. So, a lot of what we do in treatment or prevention is to do motivational interviewing — that’s one of the primary approaches in treatment.”

Hernandez, who plans to become a substance use counselor, said that what stood out most about the presentation was that for a person who is dependent on drugs, recovery is a constant and ongoing process.

“There’s no pill, there’s no cure to say, ‘Yeah, you’re good. Everything is fine. Go integrate back into society,’” Hernandez said. “Maybe therapy or counseling is their way of making sure that they’re consciously making efforts every day in their life to stay sober. I think therapy and counseling is (the answer) because you are actively making a choice that you want to behave differently. You don’t want to go back to that lifestyle and whatever triggers may make you go back to that.”

Author:  Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications

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