What you need to know about a career in Addictions Work, straight from an expert
“It’s personal, it’s everywhere, it’s ever changing, it’s not one culture, or gender or status,” says Denise Halsey about addiction and mental health issues. “It has many faces. And it’s personal why people take the program, and why they stay in it.”
She has the experience to prove it, having worked in the addictions and mental health field for more than 25 years of her career.
“When I explain all the things that I’ve done, I end up with, yes, I know it’s a lot, I’m 100 years old,” Denise jokes. “That’s why I’m field supervisor and why I helped write this program, as well. And I still work in this field!”
Now she’s bringing that experience to people that want a career helping those suffering from addiction and mental health issues as the program coordinator for Centennial College’s certificate program on the subject. If you think it’s a career you’re interested in, here’s what you’re probably asking about it, straight from the expert.
What sort of places, career-wise, can someone with this certificate go?
“Anywhere you work with people, there are addictions and mental health issues,” Denise says. “Shelters, supportive housing, withdrawal management services, whether it’s residential or in the community. Drop-in centres, hospital settings, on-the-street outreach, multi-faith environments, all ages, adolescents, adults, professionals.”
“I used to think it was just someone who lived under a bridge, in my naivety,” Denise admits, “but I’ve worked with doctors, lawyers, vets, tradesmen, military, firefighters, immigrants and refugees. There’s so much with mental health and trauma. It’s literally everywhere.”
What sort of person does it take to succeed in addictions work?
“It’s not a simple answer, but you have to be open-minded, client-centred, willing to learn and grow, because you always learn from everyone,” Denise says. “You have to be trauma-informed, have healthy boundaries, have out-of-the-box thinking, and understand that sometimes things are not fair. It’s not about knowing all the answers, it’s about finding out who has the answers, and being able to treat everyone with dignity and respect. For some people, that’s challenging.”
What’s a typical day of addictions work look like, in as much as a typical one exists?
“There’s so much diversity in this community,” Denise says. “Some of the things that I encourage people to know is where you’re working, who your community is, and to go into work knowing it’s never the same twice. Each setting is different and has its own pieces. You have to be adaptable, even when you’re prepared for what’s going on and know what’s going on.”
What’s the job’s biggest challenge?
“People hurting,” Denise admits. “Addiction is very personal. When it comes to addictions, it didn’t just start today or yesterday. There’s personal history, trauma and health issues, and no two people are the same. Being able to understand that. We have the privilege to be on a journey with someone because they invited us, not because of our credentials. We’re to be the co-pilot, and respectful.”
What’s the job’s biggest reward?
“Speaking personally, I get to see miracles every day,” Denise says. “I get to see small things, big things, and so many things. When I was working in the youth treatment centre, I’d hang out with youth, and one guy ran up to me and said, ‘it’s been a week, I haven’t used in a week,’ and he was so excited. He was 16, and it was the first time in four years he’d gone past a day. That’s a miracle.”
She also talks about being a reference to a student who got into McMaster University, and another person who gravitated to art and connected emotions to it, and one 50-year-old adult who never finished high school who graduated college at the same time as her daughter.
”Every day I’ve been in the field there’s been something that’s blown my mind,” she says.
What’s the most important thing the certificate program does to prepare you for a career?
“It offers current theories and practical skills that are important wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever you believe, but it’s also got Canadian content,” Denise says. “It’ll assist you in being more effective wherever you work. It’s not just regurgitating the old methodologies. It’s the current everything.”
“Seventy-five per cent of my coworkers had to learn to teach online,” Denise says, referring to the shift to remote learning in the wake of COVID-19 this year. “I’ve already been doing it for a couple of years. I created the course for learners in person, online and for the incarcerated in prison.”
“One of the things for me that’s very important is that we are recognized by the Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Federation,” she says. “Those who are interested in becoming a certified addictions counsellor, they recognize our courses.”
What do you want people to know about this career and this program, that isn’t commonly known?
“In comparison to so many other areas of the social field, addictions is a young profession,” Denise says. “It was only in the last 8 to 10 years that addictions and mental health were treated separately. Even today, there’s still a few agencies that aren’t aware of that. It’s new, exciting, the diversity in people.”