New initiative will create pipeline of specially trained therapists to help fight opioid epidemic

As the Indiana opioid crisis continues, there is a shortage of trained behavioral health professionals who can provide treatment to those suffering from substance use disorders.

To help address this gap, Community Health Network is launching a program that will prepare more licensed clinical social workers to provide treatment in Central Indiana and also improve the quality of the training they receive to better serve patients. The program provides a model that can be replicated in communities across the state.

IUPUI campusView print quality image
The initiative aligns with IUPUI's strategic goal of improving the well-being of communities and tackling important public health challenges. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

The Community Behavioral Health Academy -- a partnership between Community Behavioral Health at Community Health Network, the Indiana University School of Social Work at IUPUI, the University of Indianapolis and Ascend Indiana -- has been created to prepare students for dual licensure as a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed clinical addiction counselor. This will grow the supply of behavioral health professionals while enhancing the quality of treatment for those experiencing substance use disorders.

The academy, made possible through a grant from the Indianapolis-based Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, will yield 15 to 30 dually licensed clinical social workers annually, who will treat thousands of additional people in Indiana each year.

"The Behavioral Health Academy aligns with our commitment to our patients and the communities we serve," said George Hurd, vice president of Community Behavioral Health. "By creating a pipeline of qualified, specially trained therapists, we will strengthen our fight against the opioid epidemic and change the lives of those with addiction."

Indiana ranks among the top five states in its rate of opioid use or dependency but is 44th in its capacity to meet the medication-assisted treatment needs of the state's population. Contributing to that is the growing gap between employer demand for behavioral health professionals and talent supply, with Indiana falling about 7,000 workers short of the need.

This comes at a time of increased urgency around access to treatment. A recent study from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation found that more than 1,700 Hoosiers died from a drug overdose in 2017, an all-time high and a 75 percent increase since 2011. And, while some states reported a drop in the number of overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017, Indiana continued its upward trajectory.

"In the community mental health center setting, talent supply is only meeting 68 percent of projected demand for mental health positions," said Jason Kloth, president and CEO of Ascend Indiana. "This partnership between Community Health Network, the IU School of Social Work and the University of Indianapolis will create a pipeline of highly trained behavioral health professionals to provide timely recovery services. Additionally, by sharing what we've learned through this process, we hope to enable employers and educational institutions to replicate this model."

A wide range of factors contribute to the lack of trained behavioral health professionals, including relatively low pay, stressful working conditions and the need for more relevant curricula around evidence-based treatments for substance use disorders. The Academy aims to address these obstacles by offering students financial incentives, licensure support and employment pathways following graduation. However, to fully meet the need for workers, both state and federal process and policy changes are needed. These include providing tuition assistance for prospective students; expediting the licensure process; increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates at the state level; changing federal policy so that more behavioral health professionals can bill Medicare; and creating a more nimble, relevant curriculum for the field.

"The Community Behavioral Health Academy is one step in what should be a comprehensive approach to meeting the significant need for treatment among those suffering from substance use disorder and mental illness in Indiana," said Claire Fiddian-Green, president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. "To help save lives and stem the growing toll of the opioid epidemic, making other substantive changes and replicating this model around the state will be key."

As part of its grant, Ascend will help health system leaders and higher education institutions across the state learn from Community Health Network's program so they can create similar approaches to be piloted in other communities.

Academy participants will complete a specialized curriculum and internship over two semesters, and graduates will receive financial incentives and educational opportunities, including a priority job interview at Community Health Network upon graduation. "We are pleased that our curriculum now prepares graduates to become dually licensed to help combat Indiana's opioid epidemic as well as complex mental health and substance use disorders experienced by people in our communities," said Tamara Davis, dean of the IU School of Social Work at IUPUI.

"Such collaborations provide students with innovative experiential learning, professional development and networking opportunities to maximize career outcomes and to meet the demand for skilled workers in these fields," said Stephen Kolison Jr., executive vice president and provost at the University of Indianapolis.

Recruitment for the Community Behavioral Health Academy is underway at IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis, with program coursework beginning in the fall. Eligible candidates for the Community Behavioral Health Academy include current students seeking their Master of Social Work degree and in their first year of coursework. Undergraduates studying for a Bachelor of Social Work and current social workers who already hold a bachelor's degree in social work should apply to one of the participating MSW programs to be considered for the academy.

This program reflects IU's extensive expertise and research regarding addictions. To build on this area of strength, IU President Michael A. McRobbie, along with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and IU Health President and CEO Dennis Murphy, announced the Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge initiative. This Grand Challenge initiative engages a broad array of IU's world-class faculty, as well as IU's business, nonprofit and government partners. The initiative aims to implement a collaborative, applied and comprehensive plan to reduce deaths from addiction, ease the burden of drug addiction on Hoosier communities, and improve health and economic outcomes. This statewide initiative is one of the nation's largest and most comprehensive state-based responses to the opioid addiction crisis -- and the largest led by a university.​