April 2019

President’s Letter: Substance Abuse Issues – Where to Start?

By Mindy Hall
It seems like a lifetime ago, but my first placement within the school setting began when New Jersey SACs were called substance awareness coordinators. Prior to working as a SAC in the public schools, however, I had served as an on-call crisis response FOCUS family therapist, a position funded through New Jersey’s Division of Mental Health and Hospitals. I was assigned to a specific county and provided stability for families of children aged four to 17 who had recently been treated in a psychiatric crisis unit.

Serving in that baptism-by-fire role, I found that I needed more education. Even though my master’s degree in counseling helped me understand mental health issues, I felt ill equipped to address the unhealthy behaviors that were intertwined within the challenging comorbidity of substance abuse. Some of my older clients had been using drugs and some of the younger clients’ caretakers had abused drugs. Being new to the counseling field and never having battled drug addiction, I was worried clients would think me too naive or not empathetic enough to understand their struggles.

With a desire to gain more knowledge to best support my clients, I enrolled in the SAC certification program. Three years later, I was hired to work in an alternative high school. Understanding the necessity for agency wrap-around supports, we brought in outside therapists to provide intensive therapeutic intervention. We also attacked from the proactive positive living approach and took our students on outward bound-type excursions. There were days when we had amazing breakthroughs and days when I would be riding in the back of the ambulance with a student who had overdosed. Those early stages of my counseling career took me on an epic journey, but one that I would not trade for the world.

It is ironic that I am now write of those former days because I recently encountered one of my former alternative high school students who is about to turn 40. She moved back from California and is now enrolled in a program to become a social worker. She informed me that felt she had to contact me to say thank you for saving her life. I told her it was she who was my hero, because she had the courage to change her life and make it better. My soon-to-be-social-worker friend said, “Yeah, but you were the one there to listen, validate and give me hope when no one else cared. That’s why I want to be a counselor, too.” Wow. What a joy. To know that a student with such challenges not only survived, but now wants to pay it forward – I am honored.

As counselors, we do not always have to know all the answers. Realizing when we need to reach out to specialists for our students is important. But in any case, just being there to show non-judgmental support for our students is a great place to start.

Contact Mindy Hall, M.Ed., M.A., SAC, NJSCA president, at mhall@mtps.com.