Decline of the Drug Counseling Professional.
In an April 28th Wall Street Journal article, Drug Counseling’s Dearth, reporter Arian Camp-Flores poignantly captures the pay and burnout dilemma faced by Substance Abuse Treatment Counselor Christopher Farmer. Farmer and many like him are leaving their positions in drug treatment centers around the nation, accepting higher paying positions outside of their primary field of study. In the case of Christopher Farmer, he recently gave notice of leave to the Highland Recovery Center, a facility that he literally helped to build to take a position as a real-estate appraiser so that he could better provide for his family. The move from Project Manager at a substance abuse treatment center to the private sector as a real-estate appraiser would allow him the potential of making three times more than his $41,000-a-year salary at the center.
The article points to the growing shortage of counselors and other treatment staff in recovery centers across the U.S in the midst of the rapidly growing Opioid crisis. As these centers struggle in the midst of a national crisis to provide qualified resources, the number of needed jobs in the substance abuse and behavioral health field continue to grow and are projected to increase by 22% between 2014 and 2024. Despite the growing number of jobs, there is a growing struggle to fill them.
The low pay coupled with burn-out from working with difficult patients are the leading contributors to the shortage of qualified and trained professionals willing to step into and remain in these positions. Despite the expanded availability of private health care coverage and Medicaid, there doesn’t appear to be enough of a financial stream in which to compensate professional counselors at a reasonable level to entice them to remain.
According to the article, annual starting salaries for a bachelor’s-level position in the Ohio area range from $25,000 to $27,000, while a master’s-level position is between $30,000 to $33,000. In rural areas, the pay scale is comparatively smaller.
This seems so counter-productive to the long-term goals of treatment over incarceration. If treatment and rehabilitation are top priority, where are the financial and physical resources to make all of that happen?
According to the article the federal government has launched programs to supply addiction training to nursing and social work professionals and professional in other fields, with the hopes of boosting the number of available professionals, but there doesn’t appear to be dedicated federal aid to supplement the budgets that are needed to train and maintain a constant and robust employee pool.
The ratio of behavioral-health professionals to 1,000 patients with substance-abuse disorders range from 70 counselors to every 1,000 patients in Vermont to 11 counselors to every 1,000 patients in Nevada.
If we examine the inmate to guard ratio at a Correctional facility, it’s a different story. The state of California reported a 5 to 1 guard to inmate ratio for its 160,000 inmate population…and the state of California calls this an unsafe ratio scenario. According to the Federal Insider, the federal inmate-to-staff ratio is reported as 4.4 to 1.
Granted a single substance abuse counselor is not overseeing a single patient 24/7, however, many treatment facilities have the need for house-counselors who do live with patients and invest a large amount of time spread over many patients.
From a salary comparison, Salary.com reports the average starting salary for a correctional guard is close to $33,000 with the high end of $50,000.
I am not suggesting the patient/counselor ratio mirror that of the correctional market. However, if we truly value rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration and hope to attract and keep more qualified and trained professionals, then the expected salaries need to rise to the level of education and training required to work in these difficult professions.