Nine Massachusetts colleges to boost substance abuse training

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BOSTON — Students at the nine social work schools in Massachusetts will learn about preventing and treating substance misuse under an agreement worked out by the Baker administration.

The colleges and universities have agreed to incorporate the learning into core requirements for graduating and participating as social workers in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said after a meeting in his office with deans from nine schools.

The nine include Boston College, Boston University, Bridgewater State University, Salem State University, Simmons College, Smith College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, and Wheelock College.

"I simply want to say thanks to the schools for stepping up and working with us on this," Baker said.

"Often the treatment of addictions has been a specialty rather than sort of core to your training as a social worker," Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. "They will infuse addiction, the addiction principles, within their core courses."

Collaboration is needed to address the problem, according to Gautam Yadama, dean of the Boston College School of Social Work.

"This is a very complex social problem that's affecting our communities in the commonwealth," Yadama said. He added, "We cannot be in silos of professions. We cannot be in the silos of our own respective school."

Whether they are investigating reports of child neglect or offering services at a neighborhood clinic, social workers are often on or near the front lines of society's response to the opioid epidemic. Addiction is not a new subject for social work students.

"Clinical social work students are required to take at least one course in mental health disorders, including substance use, which provides a framework for assessing and treating addictions," National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter Executive Director Rebekah Gewirtz told State House News Service. The purpose of the new principles "is to expand a social work student's knowledge and competence when working with individuals with substance use disorders and the environments in which they live," she said.

Opioids were implicated in 978 deaths through the first half of 2017. Boston Health Care for the Homeless on Tuesday alerted the public to a spike in fatal and nonfatal overdoses in Boston since Aug. 1. According to the organization, which cited the Boston Public Health Commission, there was a 50 percent spike in Boston overdoses in August and September compared with earlier in the summer and more overdoses in August than any month in the city's history.

The White House's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis will likely make recommendations in about three weeks, said Baker, a member of the commission.

"It will contain a lot of things that the federal government could do without legislation, and I think it will be really important to start there, but there will also be initiatives in there that will require legislative support, and I hope the fact that we have Democrats and Republicans serving on this commission will help us create some momentum for a bipartisan approach to dealing with this in Washington, which, by the way, will be pretty consistent with the way we dealt with it here," Baker told reporters.

He said: "The final report and what happens to that final report, will be the big opportunity for both the administration and Congress to demonstrate their resolve in dealing with this."

On Wednesday the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing about the opioid crisis and U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark, William Keating and Joseph Kennedy III plan to testify, according to aides.

The Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing on the subject the week of Oct. 23. President Donald Trump has declared opioid addiction a national emergency and advocated for cracking down on drug dealers.

"Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999. It is a problem the likes of which we have not seen," Trump said in August, according to a transcript. "Meanwhile, federal drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years. We're going to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly. At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer than in 2011. So they looked at this scourge and they let it go by, and we're not letting it go by. The average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 20 percent from 2009 to 2016."

The Baker administration has previously won agreement from the heads of schools that train doctors, dentists, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists to incorporate training on addiction into their education.

Asked about what professions might next be encouraged to incorporate addiction training into their curriculum, Sudders told the News Service: "I think we're going to reach out to the other master-level programs, so the next would probably be the master's in education and counseling and the master of psychology programs, but I wanted to start with the largest group of behavioral health clinicians."

The social work schools have agreed on nine principles to incorporate into education so that workers in the field can head off addiction and respond when someone is addicted to a dangerous drug. The principles include assessing someone's risk for substance use, understanding the recovery support system, and properly administering the overdose-reversing medication naloxone.

"In some cases, social workers are just better at" interviewing skills, risk assessments and difficult conversations "than other players in the health care space or in the community generally," Baker said. He added, "I think social workers have a huge opportunity here to be really important to both helping people speak to either their own issue or the issue some other member of their family may have, but also in helping and supporting families and clinicians and coming up with plans and protocols with respect to treatment and recovery as well."

There are 4,300 social work students enrolled in Massachusetts, according to the Baker administration. Deans of social work programs told reporters they are in the process of incorporating the principles into their curricula.

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