North Country task force gives support to addiction counselors

Sheryl Rich-Kern

Behind the deluge of the opioid epidemic lies a tenuous line of addiction counselors trying to restrain the swell of overdoses and deaths.

Too often, they don’t have time to lean on each other for support.

But last year, on a muggy August morning, a group of these counselors recessed from the summer heat in an air-cooled space backdropped by the White Mountains and babbling brooks.

The setting was a Best Practices Waterville Valley conference room, where they assembled for six hours to discuss stories of substance misuse, alcoholism, grief, irreparable family dynamics and suicide.

These counselors weren’t disclosing details about their patients. They were exchanging their own life struggles, professional goals and turnaround moments. They also discussed what some call “vicarious traumas” — the result of watching patients suffer — and strategized how to mitigate the strain for their own psychological health, especially when faced with patients who don’t improve or refuse to follow recommended protocols.

Cynthia Thomas of Littleton, a registered nurse and faculty member of the Graduate Nursing Informatics at the nonprofit, online Western Governors University, participated in the 12-member panel at the Waterville workshop. She says the goal was to help raise awareness of clinician anxiety and burnout.

Thomas says that providers are taught to put their personal issues aside, yet when managing agitated or aggressive patients, that’s often difficult to do. She recalls working in a large medical and surgical unit in Virginia where patients with substance use disorders came in to detox medically or treat wounds from their addictions.

Many of the nurses, unless they received psychiatric training, weren’t familiar with anti-addiction medications and didn’t know how to respond to patients desperate for a fix.

“We don’t have the type of [mental health] services that people in our country need,” says Thomas. “Everybody [the provider] is trying to patchwork-quilt everything together in the moment for every single patient.”

An inadequate insurance system, she says, impedes the response to crisis scenarios. That leaves healthcare workers feeling less than satisfied about their job performance and emotionally exhausted. Ultimately, this impacts the quality of care, allowing medical mistakes to occur, often with tragic results.

Read the full story at our partner NH Business Review.

This story was produced by The Granite State News Collaborative as part of its Granite Solutions reporting project. For more stories, follow us on Twitter @Newsgranite and like us on Facebook @collaborativenh.