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UT Arlington creates first degree of its kind in the state to address substance use

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 8/13/2021 Lauren Castle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Aug. 13—ARLINGTON — The University of Texas at Arlington is hoping to address several needs surrounding treating substance use across the state with the creation of a new degree program.

This academic year, the university is launching a Bachelor of Science in Substance Use and Treatment to address student demand and a staffing shortage in the behavioral health field.

Karen Magruder, director of undergraduate programs in the School of Social Work, said this is the first degree program of its kind in the state.

"There's a huge need for people who work in substance use treatment and not enough education programs to fill that," Magruder said. "We are one of the few that are offering a degree like this."

A 2015 report by Challenge of Tarrant County estimated that 134,000 people are in need of behavioral health care services for substance use disorders in the community. However, only one in 10 will receive help.

John Haenes, chief operating officer for Challenge of Tarrant County, said substance use disorders affect people from all types of backgrounds — no matter their age, race or socioeconomic status.

"This is truly the great equalizer," Haenes said. "Everyone that we know will tell you that they have somebody in their lives who has been impacted by either substance use disorder or substances in some way."

Substance use can put people at risk for certain medical conditions, such as addiction, hepatitis, cancer, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Substance use in Tarrant County

Texas has seen increasing numbers in substance use of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl, according to a 2021 report by the University of Texas at Austin's Steve Hicks School of Social Work. There has also been an increase in overdose deaths related to cocaine.

Overdoses due to fentanyl use, youth vaping and alcohol use among adults and those who are underage have increased in Tarrant County during the pandemic, according to Haenes.

From March 2020 to March 2021, MedStar administered Narcan to 258 people. The medication is used as treatment during an opioid or narcotic overdose.

The increase in substance use increases was not only seen in adults during the pandemic. Cook Children's has seen youth coming into the hospital experiencing opioid ingestion during the pandemic. As of May 17, the hospital has treated 17 patients this year compared with 16 in all 2020.

Haenes said the community has seen many deaths among youth related to fentanyl in the last two years. Some teens have purchased drugs on social media that they believed were safe, but were actually laced with fentanyl.

Challenge of Tarrant County provides a variety of programs to help with substance use disorders including community and provider coalitions, and the Tarrant County Family Recovery Court. A family member who had a child removed from their care due to a substance use issue can be referred to participate in the program. The court, created in 2007, works with families to reunite them with their child while also addressing addiction.

A 2016 Texas House Community on County Affairs report stated out of the 18,940 children who were removed from by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 65% of Child Protective Services' cases involved a parent or caretaker who was dealing with substance use.

Haenes said there is a need for more beds and programs in Tarrant County to help those who can't afford treatment for substance use disorders.

The number of treatment beds is limited, especially now because of the pandemic. Centers have had to decrease the number of available beds due to COVID protocols.

Haenes said it is important for the community to talk about the issues surrounding substance use in order for people to know how to get help.

"Families need to know to not be embarrassed or ashamed to reach out because there are a lot of resources," Haenes said.

The need for behavioral health workers

The University of Texas at Arlington's new degree program will look into the biological, sociological and psychological aspects of substance use disorders. Students will learn how to help individuals, families and communities with treatment.

Before this year, the school only had a minor available for students in substance use treatment. Magruder said the School of Social Work decided to expand to a degree program due to students' desire in the subject and seeing the need for more workers in the field.

There were 319,400 jobs available for substance use, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency expects the growth for the occupation to grow 25% from 2019 to 2029 which is faster than the average for all occupations.

Over 80% of Texas counties are reported to have shortages in mental health workers, according to Magruder.

"We want to help address the shortage of workers, especially in rural areas and help to have a new generation of caring and qualified professionals who are going to help solve these issues," the professor said.

Micki Washburn, assistant professor at UTA, said substance use disorders are a public health and social justice issue.

"I think there is a need for programs like ours everywhere in the United States because substance misuse is such a huge public health and social justice issue gaining more attention," Washburn said in a statement. "We are incredibly understaffed in terms of a behavioral health workforce that has the knowledge and training to be able to apply the best research evidence to provide treatment for people who are experiencing substance use disorders."

The degree program will be offered in-person and online. Students will have over 400 hours of internship experience of working in a community agency by the time they graduate.

Resources:

Challenge of Tarrant County (www.challengetc.org).

My Health My Resources: (817) 335-3022, www.mhmrtarrant.org/addiction-services/

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