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Expert Commentary: Emma Miller, Social Work

Looking at the role of social workers and integrate health care in fighting opioid epidemic

When you think about health, what comes to mind? What helps to keep us healthy, and what position does health have in society? Understanding health is relevant as we think about how to address the current substance use epidemic.

Western North Carolina has been fortunate to have a financial boost when it comes to addressing its health needs. More than $3.2 million from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration have been granted to the Western Carolina University Department of Social Work to focus on workforce development. This infusion of resources is enhancing the ability of social workers, who are integrated into teams, to focus on a care continuum from health promotion to opioid recovery. Consequently, this helps to preserve the health of our population and to serve those with opioid addiction and unmet treatment needs.

Our health requirements can be very complex. Looking more closely at health means considering such conditions as physical status, health behaviors, stress-related physical symptoms, mental health and substance abuse conditions, life stressors and crises, and social connectedness. Sadly, such conditions, if unfavorable and unaddressed, can increase suffering and disability and incur personal and societal costs.

The good news is that attention to the complex overall health care needs of individuals within the context of their lives is becoming more commonplace through “integrated health care.” Integrated health care is care from a highly collaborative team that works together with individuals, and their family or personal supports, so that the individual can receive high-quality care. At the same time, treatments and services are more successful and less costly.

Integrated care can be found in WNC. Medical practices are more effectively promoting health by widening their scope to embrace whole-person care in a medical home structure. Other organizations are also seeing the benefits of providing care in a collaborative fashion.

Social workers are well-suited to be partners in the integrated health care effort. This is especially true because social workers try to understand human beings in their social environments, ascribe to a bio-psycho-social-spiritual model, and advocate the universal rights of all people. Social workers are participating in teams with all kinds of helpers who comprise a safety net that can offer frontline health promotion, prevention and early intervention assistance, plus sustained therapeutic support if needed. For instance, social workers provide behavioral health screenings in medical and community settings. This helps identify whether proposing help earlier could make traveling a road of substance misuse and other adverse health behaviors and conditions less likely.

Western Carolina University is contributing to health in our region. For instance, since 2014, the WCU Department of Social Work has been fortunate to have a “Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training for Professionals” grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. The goal is to recruit and train master’s degree students in social work so that the behavioral health workforce serving medically underserved communities in 13 counties of rural WNC can expand.

To date, 109 master’s degree students in social work have graduated with focused training in integrated health care, and a new cohort of 27 students just began to study through the grant program. While many of these social work professionals have additional specialized training in the area of substance use disorders, WCU will soon begin to implement a similar HRSA grant specifically aimed toward building the cadre of social workers confronting opioid addiction. Therefore, social workers are contributing daily to fostering a culture of health and wellbeing to which we collectively strive.

Health is multifaceted, and there are many elements that contribute to the dis-ease of the whole person. If we aim for health, we aim for prevention, early symptom reduction, functional improvement and better quality of life for all. It is reassuring to know that there are social workers who can help and be a vital part of the overall solution.

About the Author

Emma Miller is a licensed clinical social worker and an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at Western Carolina University

In partnership with the Jackson County Community Foundation’s opioid and addiction awareness campaign, WCU’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise is hosting a town hall focused on the opioid addiction crisis Thursday, Oct. 3.


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