Taming the Inner Demons: Dr. Kirk Bowden, GCU Emerge as Leaders in Addiction Counseling Education

April 26, 2013 / by / 1 Comment

Story By Michael Ferraresi
Photos By Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine

As many Grand Canyon University employees wrap their workdays to head home, Kara Thomas drives to a central Phoenix drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation facility.

Thomas serves GCU during the day as a University enrollment representative for the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. But on some weeknights until 10 p.m., she works at Calvary Addiction Recovery Center as part of a master’s-level practicum toward her dual degree in addiction counseling and professional counseling.

GCU counseling graduate student Kara Thomas (left) speaks with therapist Valerie Fink-Sierra in a room at Calvary Addiction Recovery Center, where Thomas leads intensive group therapy as part of her master’s practicum.

Thomas, 39, is among nearly 3,000 GCU students earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling. Addiction counseling curricula at both levels provide students with the training necessary to treat those grappling with their inner demons, and to serve those clients responsibly.

The faith-based Calvary Center is one of dozens of Phoenix-area treatment centers where GCU master’s students complete their practicum. As part of her 20-hour-a-week internship, Thomas leads intensive group therapy sessions, helps chart treatment plans, assists with drug-testing and earns the experience that licensing boards require for certification.

Faculty who updated GCU’s courses last year said changes in curriculum emphasized ethics and addressed meeting the requirements for professional licensure. The influx of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling jobs spiked around 2010 and is expected to grow over the next several years by 27 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Thomas, who volunteers with foster-care teens in her free time, said even counselors or therapists who might not specialize in addiction counseling need to have a fundamental understanding of addiction in dealing with most clients. Bad habits are linked to trauma and repressed emotion.

“The need for an understanding of that is so great,” Thomas said. “It’s really important for counselors to understand that, even if they don’t work in it (full time).”

Like other GCU students who are drawn to addiction counseling as a career, Thomas was inspired to tackle chemical dependency issues based on personal experiences. She saw some family members consumed by addictions and decided to become part of a solution.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are just two behavioral problems addressed by counselors. Sex addictions, eating disorders and adolescent video-game habits are among the counseling niches available to future counselors, although licensing standards vary for counselors who go beyond substance-abuse issues.

GCU’s program helped Thomas better understand the psychology of addiction and how to communicate with clients in a therapeutic setting. The clients in her Calvary group therapy sessions include mostly alcoholism cases, although cases of heroin and prescription-drug addiction also are common. As some clients grow frustrated, they can lash out with angry words toward counselors.

Now she can tell the difference between authentic rage and an unconscious reaction based on cognitive distortion and unhealthy defense mechanisms.

“In the past, I might have been offended,” Thomas said. “Now I don’t get offended at all. I understand them better.”

Program began as partnership

GCU launched its addiction counseling program in 2006 through a partnership with Rio Salado Community College in Phoenix. The move linked Rio associate’s degree students into a four-year university to continue their education for professional certification.

At the time, Dr. Kirk Bowden chaired Rio Salado’s chemical-dependency program. He became director of GCU’s professional counseling and addiction studies program after founding the initial partnership program. Courses he originally wrote in 2006 have been rewritten multiple times over the past two years, he said, to keep pace with trends in licensing.

As director of GCU’s professional counseling and addiction studies program, Dr. Kirk Bowden has helped the University comply with national standards, enabling students to secure state certifications after they graduate.

Bowden is involved with addiction counseling standards and training on so many levels that his LinkedIn page reads more like a story than a resume. The former stockbroker serves as chair of the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners, as president-elect of the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, and on the ethics committee for the American Counseling Association, in addition to dozens of other professional affiliations.

Bowden suggested the culture of metro areas such as Phoenix has partly led to the higher demand for counselors. Metro Phoenix is known as a place where many residents resettle from other parts of the U.S. Bowden believes too often people with no close friends or family turn to substances first, or fail to understand the nature of their habits, rather than seeking meaningful emotional support.

“People in the old days had a pastor or rabbi … someone to share their issues with,” Bowden said. “Now people don’t have that same kind of thing. When they have issues, they don’t have close friends they’ve grown up with. They don’t have a pastor they’ve gone to at the same congregation for 10 years that they feel comfortable with.”

Bowden said he felt drawn toward his psychology graduate studies later in life because he wanted to learn “how people thought, why they did the things they did.”

With increased demand for trained counselors in both public and private sectors, he said it was critical for GCU to continue to update its curriculum. He oversees the master’s program, which now enables students in 40 states to complete their practicum work in their hometowns as they earn degrees online.

Launching pad for careers

Ellen Roy-Day oversees GCU’s counseling bachelor’s program. She helped Bowden write some the earliest coursework for GCU and gutted the curriculum as part of the recent overhaul to comply with national guidelines.

The bachelor’s program coursework “may qualify graduates to meet the standards for state, national and international certification/licensure for professional prevention specialists and treatment counselors/providers,” according to a program overview.  But many undergraduates transition immediately into the 36-credit-hour addiction counseling master’s program to earn the chance to practice independently, Roy-Day said.

Roy-Day also worked in finance before launching her career of more than 20 years as a counselor in both clinical and private-practice settings. Now, she teaches everything from an introductory campus course to an online counseling theories course at GCU.

She said the new curriculum only generally mirrors the old program, which would have left students struggling to meet requirements for licensing in some states. Bachelor’s students can get licenses in some states as an associate substance-abuse counselor, although they are limited to jobs in education, as well as to hospital behavioral-health tech jobs, until they earn a master’s.

“We wanted to update (the curriculum) and make it a little more cutting-edge, have it include a lot of new theories,” said Roy-Day, who specializes in treatment of psychological trauma for emergency first-responders and military personnel.

Even with an addiction counseling master’s, students can only really focus on treating substance abuse. GCU’s professional counseling degree program helps students build toward certification as licensed professional counselors, to work on everything from couples therapy to post-traumatic stress disorder and gambling addictions.

As GCU counseling faculty understand, the scope and need for thoughtful professional counselors is so great that students have plenty of options for career development.

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or michael.ferraresi@gcu.edu.


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One Response
  1. Zandra

    Wonderful article for those of us returning students entering the counseling profession; GCU has kept up with new trends and certification needs for the Masters in Licensed Professional Counseling, as I continued to read the article, it relieved me to find out LPCs can qualify to competently work in various areas, after graduating and acquiring the proper licensure. Thanks GCU, ZC

    May.29.2013 at 5:20 pm
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