The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, July 11, 2017 1:00 am

Social workers in high demand

Opioid crisis exacerbating shortage

RON SHAWGO | For The Journal Gazette

As record overdose deaths raise alarms, there is yet another twist to the opioid crisis: a shortage of social workers.

IUPUI reported last week that the drug epidemic has helped fuel the shortage, and addiction is just part of the problem.

Addicts cannot properly care for their children, so issues spill over to the child welfare system as well, said Michael Patchner, dean of IUPUI School of Social Work.

“The demand for social workers has always been high, but it is particularly true now,” Patchner said in a news release. “There are workforce shortages in the state in mental health and addictions, in child welfare and medical social work.”

The same is true for social work programs at Manchester University and IPFW, officials say. The IPFW program is part of the IUPUI system.

Addicts and their families are likely to need mental health counseling, addictions treatment, and various family services, Jan Nes, the IPFW program's coordinator, said in an email. In addition, many drug-dependent people are in the criminal justice system.

“Social workers are involved in all of these areas from direct practice to policy and advocacy activities,” she said.

“The practice area for our MSW program in Fort Wayne is mental health and addictions,” Nes said of the master of social work program. “Our MSW graduates have no difficulties securing employment post-graduation as community needs for master's prepared social workers are very high, in part due to challenges brought on by addictions issues, including opioid addiction.”

Surveying 93 May graduates who received a bachelor's degree, IUPUI found that of the 47 who responded all had a job or were furthering their education. Some had multiple job offers, according to the release, which called the results a “remarkable record.”

Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, faster than the 7 percent for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Social workers of all types earned a median annual wage – half earned more and half earned less – of $46,890 in May 2016. The median for mental health and substance abuse social workers was $42,700.

The Bowen Center can't find enough social workers, said Kurt Carlson, president and CEO of the agency. The center provides professional mental and behavioral health care services to northeast Indiana at 11 locations including Fort Wayne. It hires social workers from every regional college, Carlson said.

The drug epidemic is contributing to the shortage, but Carlson doesn't give it full blame.

“Even if we didn't have an opioid epidemic the need would be there,” he said.

There has been a shortage of master's-level therapists with an interest in addiction treatment for some time, Tom Allman, manager of addiction services at Park Center, said in an email response. Park Center is a Fort Wayne nonprofit that provides addiction treatment services.

“I think it would be fair to say that the opiate crisis has shined a spotlight on the shortage of providers,” he said. 

Agencies that haven't had to address addiction are now having to, said Barb J. ­Burdge, social work program director at Manchester University in Wabash County. All Manchester social work students worked with opioid addicted clientele during their internships this year. And though graduates are getting jobs in a wide variety of social service settings, the issue of opioid addiction is coming up in all their job interviews and offers, she said.

Manchester has a bachelor's degree social work program. The annual graduating class typically averages eight or 10. About half go on to get an MSW or similar degree, Burdge said.

Graduates get jobs and internships in domestic violence centers, Head Start programs, medical centers, hospitals, schools, child welfare agencies and probation offices, she added.

Demand for social workers is even greater because of the crisis, Brudge said.

“Especially social workers who can come into the job with some concrete knowledge about addiction and how to help people who are facing it and how to help families affected by it,” she said.

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