Shaping lives; sharing stories

Behavioral health students bring wealth of personal, professional experience to growing service field --

Ken Roberts

Advances in science and medicine, coupled with changing health care standards have helped make addiction and substance abuse treatment an emerging specialty health care discipline. As the field evolves, the need for qualified individuals with advanced education and training in the science and practice of chemical addiction and counseling is growing exponentially.

Enter the College's Addiction Studies Certificate program, designed to address that call for licensed addiction care professionals, as well as the proposed professional master's degree in Integrated Behavioral Health. Says Julie Rohovit, the certificate program's director, "[This area of study] is in very high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 26 percent growth in jobs over the next decade, due to an increase in accessible health care and less social stigma around needing and receiving treatment for substance use disorders."

Most importantly, Rohovit points out, our graduates are changing lives. "Substance use disorders take a toll on individuals, families, and communities. Like physical illnesses, they cost money and lives if they are not prevented, left untreated, or poorly managed. Addiction counselors have specialized training to help their clients make far-reaching and long-lasting changes in their behavior that tip the scales from addiction to recovery."

As with many of the College's students, addiction studies program participants come from a variety of backgrounds. "The students are truly a reflection of our wider community. We have traditional-age students studying psychology sitting side-by-side with people who've retired from a previous career and are now looking for work that gives them a deeper sense of connection and purpose. Some students have had a personal experience with addiction, some have not. All, however, have a strong desire to understand addiction so that they can provide effective care," says Rohovit.

Addiction Studies Certificate graduates Ken Roberts (shown) and Kathleen Behrens represent just two of the many different backgrounds in the program. Here, they share their stories.

Ken Roberts
Originally from Massachusetts, Ken Roberts came to Minnesota a little more than six years ago "as a 'guest' of the folks at Hazelden," he quips.

It wasn't his first go-around in recovery, Roberts says, "more like my fifth, at least. But this time, I was actually willing to change; to follow someone else's advice."

Halfway across the country was a long, but necessary, way to go for treatment. "I was at the point where I had lost everything because of my addiction. My life was not in a good place. Friends, jobs, my fiancée. You name it; I lost it. But even after all that, I was lucky enough to have some supportive family who cared enough to send me out here to get help."

Following five months of in-patient treatment, Roberts was discharged to St. Paul to live in a sober house and integrate back into the working world. The first home he ended up at was nearly his undoing. "It was a mess," he says. "In a bad neighborhood. Run down, unsafe, filthy. There was no one there to give me a hand getting my bearings. I didn't know anyone here; didn't know the city. I was so torn--I wanted to do the right thing in my recovery, but the place just felt wrong. My gut said I needed to find something different, a better place."

Through a friend, Roberts found Transition Homes, and knew instantly he had made the right choice in looking elsewhere. "It was a beautiful Victorian home in a normal residential neighborhood. The owner met me when I arrived, told me I was welcome to stay. He handed me a key and said, 'move in when you want; pay when you can.' I lived there for a year as a resident."

Following his segue into sober housing, Roberts got a job; met new people--including the woman who would become his wife; took up running (he eventually proposed to his wife during the Twin Cities Marathon); and found himself back in school. "My roommate signed up for an addiction studies class and encouraged me to, as well. He bailed after two weeks. I stayed; reenergized by it. It gave me structure and accountability. I was working toward something where I could finally give back to the community that gave so much to me."

Roberts did his internship at Transition Homes--the same place he had lived following Hazelden--and then was officially hired full time. He earned his LADC (Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor) certification, and eventually was named program director. Now, in addition to his work at Transitions, Roberts is working with Project Recovery, which provides outreach and housing services for homeless adults with chemical dependency issues. He is also serving as a mentor to fellow athletes, and is working on his Integrated Behavioral Health degree.

"My life is very hectic and demanding," he says. "But it's also incredibly rewarding. Recovery is not a one-time event. It's ongoing. Stopping drinking is a good start, and making your amends. But then what? You have to keep going--you have to learn how to live your life. Connecting with something outside of yourself, being of service...sharing your story. That's the greatest gift we have."

Kathleen Behrens
After working as a licensed social worker for many years in a variety of settings (including psychotherapy, crisis intervention, outpatient therapy, and in-home visits), Kathleen Behrens decided to make a radical career shift: she became a professional photo stylist. "I needed to take a break," she explains. "I needed to recharge my batteries, see the world in a different way for awhile."

And although she loved working as a stylist, Behrens always planned to return to social work at some point. "After you've worked in human services and had the privilege to see people step up and change their lives--that's a very profound experience, and not one I wanted to abandon permanently."

When Behrens decided to return to the field, she knew she needed some time to reacclimatize herself and bolster her training. "I wanted something that filled a gap in my experiences, and I also wanted something with a hands-on, practicum-based component."

As it turned out, that was the Addiction Studies program. "Previously in my work, the worlds of mental health and substance abuse were often separated. It was traditional to refer out clients who had an abuse problem. But there's a growing awareness now as to the connection between the two, an interrelatedness, and I felt like this certificate could help me serve my clients better."

"One of the things I have always loved about social work," Behrens says, "is the variety of work and the large number of issues to explore. There are so many big things happening in the field right now, and our understanding of everything from neuroscience, psychopharmacology, behavioral therapy, even our treatment models, are being examined. It's a changing paradigm."

Behrens credits her certificate, as well as her internship at Conceptual Counseling (where she is now employed), for allowing her to delve into many ideas and issues she might not necessarily have been exposed to otherwise. "There is so much to learn in this complex field. Medical, chemical, mental issues--every aspect of life can be touched by it. But I feel like this program has given me a good grounding, and will let me take my work to the next level."