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Counselor training and internships supported by Opioid Workforce Expansion grant: WCSU introduces new master’s degree program in Addiction Studies

image of Members of the first cohort in the Western Connecticut State University M.S. in Addiction Studies program.
Members of the first cohort in the Western Connecticut State University M.S. in Addiction Studies program.

DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University is responding to the regional and national opioid crisis with the launch this fall of a new Master of Science in Addiction Studies program designed to prepare counselors specializing in the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders.

The 37-credit M.S. program offered in the WCSU Department of Psychology will include course work with faculty specialists in addiction studies as well as extensive internship opportunities for students to work at area agencies on the front line in treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. Graduates will complete the program fully prepared to seek Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LADC) certification, the licensure recognized by Connecticut statute for professionals who provide specialized prevention and early intervention services in collaboration with mental health and medical providers for individuals diagnosed with opioid and other substance use disorders.

“We began developing this new M.S. in Addiction Studies more than five years ago in response to the alarming growth in substance use disorders in New England and nationwide,” graduate program coordinator and Professor of Psychology Dr. Shane Murphy observed. While the department already provides undergraduate courses to prepare for basic certification as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC), Murphy said, “our graduates were giving us feedback that to provide the type of impact they felt necessary to combat the drug epidemic, they needed more advanced training and more responsibility in their licensure.” The central role of LADC professionals in ensuring continuity and coordination of treatment for substance use disorder patients exemplifies “the benefits of an integrated primary medical service system, and our graduates will look forward to providing these important behavioral health services.”

The new M.S. in Addiction Studies received a major boost with the award this summer of a $1.087 million Opioid Workforce Expansion Program (OWEP) grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, designed to improve training in evidence-based prevention, assessment and treatment of opioid and other substance use disorders.

The grant will enable WCSU to expand internship and training assignments for students to work with high-risk populations, promote multi-disciplinary collaborations in addiction studies, and introduce new partnerships and outreach efforts in the community. WCSU is the only Connecticut institution to receive an OWEP grant and one of only six New England recipients.

A primary goal of the federal OWEP initiative is to expand the available workforce of professionals trained in prevention and treatment of opioid and other substance use disorders, with particular focus on medically underserved communities. “The purpose of the grant is to improve the treatment of opioid use disorder in communities that are in highest need,” remarked Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Lindsay Oberleitner, principal investigator for the project. “The rate of opioid use disorder in Connecticut is higher than the national average, and the needs across the state are complex and diverse. Addiction treatment is improved in part by strengthening the knowledge and experience of treatment providers.”

Murphy noted that the grant will fund student stipends for internships with partner agencies that currently include the Western Connecticut Health Network in Danbury and Norwalk, the APT Foundation in New Haven, the Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, the Midwestern Connecticut Council of Alcoholism, and CHOICES at WCSU. “Our students will be working directly with clients, learning with experienced supervisors at excellent treatment agencies,” he said.

Citing a 2011 White House Office of Drug Policy report that estimated alcohol and drug addiction costs to the United States at $193 billion annually, Murphy observed addiction exacts a devastating economic and social price in terms of crime, domestic violence, lost workplace productivity, illness and death. “Individuals living with a substance use disorder often have physical health problems such as lung disease, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” he said.

“Connecticut’s opioid and heroin epidemic has seen deaths attributed to overdoses increase to more than 1,000 in 2017,” he added. “We desperately need a well-trained workforce who can provide treatment and prevention services with an evidence-based and harm-reduction approach, and our master’s program will help meet that need. We hope our M.S. in Addiction Studies program will become the gold standard for training licensed alcohol and drug counselors in Connecticut and southern New England, and this grant is a huge step in this direction.”

As a member of the first student cohort admitted in the fall semester to the M.S. in Addiction Studies program, Taylor Cassidy, of Brookfield, said the opportunity to acquire real-world experience through internships designed to meet her interests was a powerful draw for her. “The program takes into consideration the personal experiences that I look to gain and the specific populations that I am interested in working with,” she said.

A 2019 recipient of a B.A. in Psychology at WCSU, Cassidy is taking advantage of the option to enroll full time and complete her master’s degree in one year. After graduation, she plans to work for several years with a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor before earning her licensure and establishing her own treatment and counseling center.

“Compared with other fields in mental health, drug and alcohol addiction is still a relatively new and rapidly growing field, and ideas are constantly being introduced about how to treat those afflicted,” Cassidy said. “I am looking forward to being part of a new wave of thinking in addiction treatment, and I am ecstatic about starting my journey in a field that is expanding and evolving every day to help real people.”

Carole Allers, of Wilton, also earned her B.A. in Psychology this year at WCSU and begins the M.S. in Addiction Studies program as the latest chapter in her personal journey over the past 30 years as a stay-at-home mother, school volunteer, certified referee instructor and personal trainer. “I have always been interested in trying to help people understand their roadblocks and develop solutions to them,” she said.

Through her internship during undergraduate studies as a domestic abuse and sexual assault counselor at the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury, she observed, “I realized addictions come in many forms. In order to help people with addictions, we need to understand how they got there. I need the tools to help and WCSU is providing that. Whatever field I end up in, I hope to help as many people as I can, one person at a time.”

Howie Senior, of New Milford, pursued an independent research project investigating the genetic predisposition to addiction within his own family during his undergraduate studies at Fordham University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1996. “To say that I was astounded with the findings is an understatement,” he said. “Addiction has affected every generation that I studied within my own family, and I have spoken to others who have been candid in revealing the same within their families as well.”

Senior’s involvement in youth sports and high school athletics programs has given him a keen awareness of “how the disease of addiction affects our youth. It’s very hard to be a young person in our society today and it has become a breeding ground for addiction,” he said. “As a coach, I’ve had the opportunity to witness and in some cases to be part of situations involving drugs and alcohol. These interactions have fueled my excitement and redirection of my professional career.”

His goal in pursuing the M.S. in Addiction Studies at WCSU is to become a substance abuse counselor at the high school or college level and “turn the tide before the pain and suffering take their toll,” he said. In researching master’s degree programs in the field, he noted, “I found WCSU has the only substantive program that specializes in addiction studies in the area. Witnessing firsthand the prevalence and consequences of addiction, I am excited and honored to be part of the first cohort at one of the first universities to implement this much-needed program.”

For more information, contact Murphy at or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.



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