CONCORD, N.H. >> Janelle Jones knew she wanted to get a master's degree someday, but she figured that would mean driving to a college campus at least an hour away. Now, her commute is just a walk down the hall, thanks to a New England College program aimed at boosting New Hampshire's mental health workforce and addressing its growing substance abuse crisis.
Jones supervises children's case management services at the Center for Life Management, a community mental health center in Derry. She's also one of 35 students enrolled in the master's degree program for clinical mental health counselors at New England College. And instead of traveling to the Henniker campus, her professors — all working clinicians themselves — come to her workplace.
"It's so convenient to have it right here at the office," she said. "I worked right up to the minute we were starting class last week, and just went over to the training room."
The revamped master's degree program includes partnerships with four of the state's 10 community mental health centers — CLM, Genesis Behavioral Health in Laconia, Riverbend Community Mental Health Center in Concord and the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester.
Next year, the college also will add a certificate program in substance abuse treatment. The courses will be open to all NEC students but was created to complement the counseling graduate program, said Paul Dann, program director of the mental health counseling program.
"One of the things we realized is there is a close connection between people's mental health and the kinds of things they've experienced in their lives with complex trauma and the way substances become a way for them to deal with mental health," he said. "So we see this as a way to begin to attack some of the root causes by helping to advance the workforce and to help increase the number of graduates who will be able to be qualified therapists working with people with mental health issues and substance abuse issues as well."
The U.S. Labor Department estimated in 2014 that the number of addiction counselors would jump 22 percent over 10 years, but that didn't take into account the heroin and opioid abuse crisis New Hampshire and much of the country is struggling with, said Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, executive director of the National Association for Addiction Professionals.
Tuohy's organization and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are holding forums around the country this month to encourage more college freshmen and sophomores to choose careers in substance abuse and mental health professions. A regional forum for New England will be held Wednesday at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester.
Her organization also has been pressing state and federal lawmakers to think more about the recruitment and retention of workers as they try to address the opioid epidemic. She praised the NEC program as a "wonderful model."
Many addiction counselors started their careers decades ago when advanced degrees weren't required and may be reluctant to pursue more education unless it becomes more convenient and affordable, she said.
The NEC program gives students a 10 percent discount on tuition if they work for one of the partner agencies. The health centers, in turn, hope it will help them attract new workers who will stay for at least four years — two years to get their degrees and two more years to fulfill licensing requirements.
Steve Arnault, vice president of clinical services at CLM, said his agency already has expanded its substance abuse services to try to keep up with the crisis and by next spring, the NEC program will provide his agency with interns who can help do that work.
"The training they're going to get academically along with the hands-on experience is going to create a whole new generation of workforce to combat the crisis," he said.