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HUNTINGTON - In order to have more treatment options for those ready to enter long-term recovery, there must be qualified behavioral health specialists ready to assist people in their journey.

Marshall University on Tuesday joined forces with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), the Association for Addiction Professionals and the West Virginia Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities in the Department of Health and Human Resources to host a collegiate Workforce Forum to encourage college students to enter into the addiction and mental health workforce.

There are more than 95,000 professionals working in addiction-focused fields, and that number is predicted to continue to expand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the workforce to grow 22 percent by 2024.

Still, there is a national shortage of behavioral health professionals, said Patrice Pooler, president of the West Virginia Association of Alcohol and Drug Counselors.

"I find that incredible, because nationally this is such an epidemic status and at a state level we are at the highest rate of deaths from overdoses," Pooler said. "I was thinking a little about the job description for doing what we do: If you like people, are someone who really has a passion for helping people heal and helping them find the courage to heal. You would need some empathy and also education is helpful, and advised. But really the only requirement is you are breathing oxygen. So if you are breathing oxygen and have any of the qualities I mentioned, you would be perfect for this field."

The goal of the workforce forum was to expose students to the different aspects of addiction work.

"It's important to have a wide range - from peer recovery coaches to Ph.D.s," said Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, executive director of NAADAC.

Tuohy said there are some barriers to getting more addiction professionals in the field that her organization is working on addressing.

One is that salaries are relatively low when compared to other health fields, though the average is still nearly $40,000. Tuohy said the average also seems to be increasing from year to year.

There are also barriers for those in long-term recovery themselves, particularly if they acquired a felony as a result of active addiction.

Cassandra Chapman, graduate counseling student at Marshall and a person in long-term recovery, said even with her experience, work ethic and references, this still scares her.

"It's going to make it much more difficult for me to find a place of employment, even though I have all of this relevant experience," Chapman said. "I do know I will have to work that much harder than everybody else, and I'm willing to do that today. I can do that because it's worth it."

The event Tuesday was live-streamed to the public and there were satellite events at eight other West Virginia colleges and universities.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.


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