The numbers are alarming.
Every day, more than 130 people die in the United States due to opioid-related drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 11 million people in the U.S. have misused prescription opioids.
Suicide rates continue rising nationally, reaching as high as nearly 30 deaths in 100,000 people in some states and claiming the lives of more than 45,000 Americans, age 10 or older, each year.
And more than 8.1 percent of American adults (age 20 or older) struggle with depression, estimates the CDC. Anxiety and depression are becoming more prevalent in children, ages 2 – 17, with as many as 4.5 million U.S. children diagnosed with anxiety
and 1.9 million diagnosed with depression.
When a person struggles with addiction or a mental health disorder, having a person in their corner, helping and supporting them, can mean the difference between getting better and spiraling downward.
Mental health and addiction counselors play important roles in working with people to establish new coping methods and in overcoming a dependence on drugs, alcohol, and destructive behaviors like gambling. With the increase in mental health issues
and drug addiction in the U.S., there’s an increased need for qualified professionals to help people through these difficult life events. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 23 percent growth in the job market for substance
abuse, behavioral disorders and mental health counselors by 2026.
For Stephannie Stephens, a 2017 graduate of the Mental Health, Social Service and Addiction Counseling (MHSSAC) program at Mt. Hood Community College, her decision to work as an alcohol and drug counselor stemmed largely from personal experience and
her own struggles. On Nov. 8, 2018, she celebrated five years of sobriety.
“Ultimately, I wanted to help the community that helped me to recover from addiction,” said Stephens. “I’m grateful for the chance to draw on my own experience and to provide a safe space for others suffering from addiction.”
"And more than 8.1 percent of American adults (age 20 or older) struggle with depression, estimates the CDC. Anxiety and depression are becoming more prevalent in children, ages 2 – 17, with as many as 4.5 million U.S. children diagnosed with anxiety
and 1.9 million diagnosed with depression."
“I know firsthand the loss of self-respect and the overwhelming shame that accompanies addiction,” she added. “But for me, it only took one person who truly believed in me to make it to the other side.”
For Stephens, that one person was blogger Katy Maher, who wrote candidly about her own struggles with alcohol and drugs and with raising a family. Stephens connected with her writing, reached out to Maher, and found a strong supporter. Maher helped
give Stephens the support she needed to overcome her own addiction, and they’ve been close friends ever since.
The college’s MHSSAC program also gave Stephens important perspective and encouraged her to remain empathetic, conscious of boundaries, culturally aware, and attentive to how she can best serve and support others.
Karen Green directs MHCC’s Associate of Applied Science in MHSSAC degree program. She describes the program as providing the same caliber of quality education as most local four-year mental health and counseling degree programs.
“While earning their AAS, students apply counseling, case management, and treatment practices in the classroom and in a series of internships they complete while enrolled,” said Green. “We use different classroom tools and techniques, including videotaped
practice counseling sessions that students review to learn and grow as counselors.”
Practical training also makes up an integral part of the MHSSAC program. The program works with partners throughout the Portland area – including Trillium Family Services and Cascadia Behavioral and Whole Health Center – to provide internship opportunities
to students. Each student participates in at least four terms (480 total hours) of an internship, where they work alongside seasoned professionals and directly apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. Plus, it offers them a chance to network
and possibly move directly into a paid position upon graduating.
For second-year MHSSAC student Amy Black, her internship with the housing nonprofit Human Solutions helped her identify the area she now wants to specialize in.
“I chose this field because I originally wanted to work with women and families to help them find success in their struggles,” described Black, who serves residents of an affordable housing complex in Portland. “However, I’ve defined my focus more
through interning. I now want to work with women dealing with physical and mental trauma, to assist them, within my scope of practice, to meet their hierarchy of needs and become more informed of how trauma could be effecting their lives. I find
that trauma recovery empowers women mentally and physically.”
MHSSAC graduates go on to work in a range of fields and positions, including as social workers, multicultural service providers, domestic violence advocates, community corrections workers, youth mentors, case managers, and more. They work with diverse
populations and familial units, and in a variety of different settings and environments, ranging from schools and residential facilities to social service agencies and corrections centers.
The MHSSAC program helps prepare them for that variety too. In addition to interning with organizations throughout the Portland metro area, students earn a one-year Youth Worker certificate and a one-year Behavioral Healthcare Specialist certificate
while completing their two-year degree.
First-year MHSSAC student Chanel Tran is preparing for her first internship.
“We have many well-known agencies to choose from for our internships,” she said, “ranging from the Department of Human Services to the Clark County Juvenile Center. It’s impressive how well-connected our program is to the community and to community
"The women I lived with at my Oxford House taught me to be employable, to serve my community, and to manage my rollercoaster of a life without needing to abuse substances. I chose the MHSSAC program because I have overcome suffering in my life and I strongly
believe that others deserve the same opportunities that I have been blessed with."
Many MHSSAC students opt to go on to earn a four-year or advanced degree in the field. Fortunately, the program maintains transfer opportunities with multiple area institutions, among them Portland State University, Warner Pacific College, Clark College
and Concordia University. Students who want to transfer to a four-year program can work directly with a faculty adviser to identify the academic programs that meet their needs and will help them achieve their desired outcomes.
“Through the experiential elements of the program, including fieldwork, group work, and videotaped interviewing sessions, students graduate well-prepared to transfer to a four-year or graduate program,” said Green.
Like her fellow students and MHSSAC alumni, second-year student Jessica Herman chose the mental health and counseling field to give back. Throughout her teenage and early adult years, she suffered from substance abuse and addiction before spending
three years living in an Oxford House, a sober-living facility with locations throughout the U.S.
“The women I lived with at my Oxford House taught me to be employable, to serve my community, and to manage my rollercoaster of a life without needing to abuse substances,” said Herman. “I chose the MHSSAC program because I have overcome suffering
in my life and I strongly believe that others deserve the same opportunities that I have been blessed with.”
Today, Herman interns with Oxford Houses of Oregon, where she serves on the outreach team responsible for securing leases for new Oxford House facilities. And by doing so, she’s helping the people who have helped her to succeed.
“Our students often come to the program with real-world experience, experience that has shaped their lives,” said Green. “They know that they want to give back. Through the MHSSAC program, they can find a variety of industries and jobs to work in
to give back.”
For Tran too, it was personal struggles that made her realize the benefits of counseling and encouraged her to pursue working in the mental health and counseling field. She said it was a severe depression and near-death accident that helped put her
life into perspective. She realized the importance of helping others through life’s hardships and of reminding them that they have potential – they just need to realize it themselves.
“The MHSSAC program dives deep into self-understanding and self-exploration, which is my favorite aspect of it,” said Tran. “We all need to face our own demons before we can help others. But choosing that path – the path to help and serve others who
are struggling – is incredibly rewarding. For me, I’ve become a stronger, more confident person, even after just one term.”
You can learn more about the MHSSAC program by visiting mhcc.edu/MentalHealth. The next information session for the MHSSAC program is Wednesday, March 20, Noon – 1 p.m. in AC2761. The application deadline for the fall session is Friday, April 12.