Wisconsin fights national opioid crisis with online Competencies Addiction Recovery Services program

recovery watercolor

Wisconsin is well acquainted with the opioid epidemic, which kills more than 130 people in communities across the country each day according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin has doubled over the past decade, and the national overdose rate has nearly tripled. This crisis cuts across socioeconomic and racial groups, with great costs to families, communities, employers, and the health care system.

These are just a few of the reasons the University of Wisconsin–Madison has launched Competencies in Addiction Recovery Support (CARES). This new, fully online learning program prepares professionals to become certified substance abuse counselors anywhere in the U.S. By helping learners develop competencies in areas such as counseling methods, screening and assessment, and treatment planning, CARES provides the tools they need to change lives and make a difference in their communities.

“I’ve been in this field for 30 years, and the need for substance abuse counselors has continued to grow that whole time,” says Flo Hilliard, who oversees Wisconsin Voices for Recovery and helps UW–Madison develop training programs for addiction-recovery professionals. “With the opioid crisis, the need is greater than ever.”

Convenient, current, and compassionate

Flo Hilliard, program contributor
Flo Hilliard: ‘The brain can heal from opioid addiction, but it needs help.’

CARES grew out of the university’s successful substance use disorders certificate and the need for more professionals to obtain the credentials needed for substance abuse counseling jobs.

“We noticed there were many licensed therapists doing mental health work who wanted to become dually credentialed to counsel people with substance use disorders,” Hilliard explains. “We also wanted to help people in other states obtain the credentialing they needed to do this important work, so we decided to build a program that suits the needs of working professionals, something that is convenient and completely online.”

Hilliard says the online format of the course enables instructors to share the most up-to-date research findings on a regular basis. This helps learners incorporate current evidence-based practices into their work.

Recent information about opioids’ neurochemical effects is crucial, she adds, because the public lacks awareness that opioid addiction is a brain disease.

“I’ve been educating clinicians about how opioids hijack the brain for 25 years, but many people still don’t know this information,” she says. “Because of this, people suffering from this disease continue to be stigmatized by society and they put incredible pressure on themselves to stop using drugs. It’s not that simple. The brain can heal, but it needs help, not shame.”

Helping learners succeed

Mandy Ingram, a Madison-based clinician who specializes in substance use disorders, has firsthand knowledge of the shame, stigma, and social challenges that surround addiction. Before entering recovery and building her career, she went through an alternative sanctions process that offered her a safety net and a path out of addiction.

“I’m not sure I would be where I am today without the help and support of substance abuse counselors,” she says.

In addition to applying knowledge from this experience to her clinical work, she used it to make CARES as relevant as possible for learners.

“No two paths to recovery are the same,” she explains. “CARES introduces people to a variety of approaches and theories so they are well equipped to work with a diverse caseload.”

Ingram says one of the most challenging aspects of this work involves maintaining healthy boundaries while supporting clients who may need a significant amount of care.

“As a substance abuse counselor, it’s important to not want recovery for the client more than the client wants recovery. CARES gives counselors excellent tools and resources for addressing this challenge,” she says.

CARES is designed to help learners succeed in other ways as well. Each of the program’s topics, or content domains, prepares them to thrive in future trainings and their work in the community. Plus, the entire experience is self-paced, allowing them to gain information at a manageable speed and pause to revisit challenging material.

Participants learn by reading academic articles, watching videos of clinicians working in the field, and discussing case studies that challenge them to apply their new knowledge to real-world situations. Online quizzes help them synthesize information as they are learning it, while in-depth assessments show how deep their knowledge of the content has become.

“Learners can use the assessments to gauge their progress in the course and identify which topics they need to review to develop a more complete understanding,” Ingram adds.

Group therapy
Substance abuse counselors can find work as group therapy leaders.

Building skills, broadening career opportunities

The program’s focus on competency development lets future substance abuse counselors gain the knowledge they need without relearning content they’ve already mastered. CARES participants can mix and match trainings on six topics ranging from ethics to case management, earning 60 continuing education (CE) hours for each they complete. Alternatively, they can enroll in the entire program to earn 360 CE hours.

Once participants complete CARES, they are prepared to take credentialing exams offered by the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) and the National Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). After passing such exams, learners can pursue work as recovery coaches, group therapy leaders, counseling program directors, and more.