Behavioral Health Counseling Program Aims to Combat Opioid Crisis

By The Fix staff 05/23/18

“Given the sheer magnitude of the opioid crisis in this country, we are going to need more addictions counselors than ever before."

Woman sitting at table with laptop, smiling.
Drexel's online program uses various resources such as a virtual simulation of an opioid overdose.

Angela Colistra is woman on a mission to help stem the opioid epidemic – which according to current estimates, claims the lives of nearly 100 Americans every day.

In fact, Colistra has devoted her career to researching, treating and preventing substance use disorders, a passion she shares with her students, as an assistant clinical professor in Drexel University’s online BS in Behavioral Health Counseling program. And like so many in this field, her professional focus is grounded in personal experience, growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, where she witnessed the devastating impact of addiction on individuals, families and whole communities.

After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology, Colistra headed off to East Carolina University, to complete a master’s degree in substance abuse and vocational rehabilitation counseling. She spent her clinical internship working in a traditional 12-step, diversionary addictions treatment program for women.

“I cried every day; their stories were so sad. And here I was preaching 90 meetings in 90 days and giving them a basic treatment plan. I just felt like I couldn’t keep telling these women that the program they were in would make them well, when I didn’t believe it would. So, when a colleague gave me a book about motivational interviewing, I jumped at the chance to learn more because it was a therapeutic approach that defined a process for empowering my clients to actually understand and then change their substance use patterns.”

Not long after Colistra received her master’s degree, she took a job in Boone, NC, working in a medication-assisted treatment program, with clients who came from as far away as Tennessee and as early as 5:30 a.m. to receive their Methadone before heading off to work. The experience opened her eyes to the rapidly escalating risks of prescription opiates.

“Even back then in 2005, people were dying at alarming rates from overdosing on opiates, many of whom were hooked on drugs like oxycodone their doctors had prescribed for pain over long periods of time. And because the data still shows there are more deaths from these prescriptions than from heroin, I can’t help but conclude that they are the driving force behind the opioid crisis.”

Colistra believes the medical community must become better educated around effective prevention and treatment approaches that focus more on non-addictive alternatives for pain management and harm reduction strategies like naloxone (the overdose antidote). Likewise, she advocates treatment over incarceration for illegal opiate use, through increased funding for affordable, evidence-based treatment programs, including safe and cost-effective medication-assisted options.

“People with opiate use disorders need care, not jail. But we live in a society where treatment options are limited for people without adequate resources. And while 12-step self-help groups offer ongoing support, they are not treatment. So, we need to take a strikingly different approach to providing that care, which I hope I can help shape with the research I am doing.”

Having recruited four focus groups – each with a different perspective on opiate use disorder – Colistra is now compiling their stories and analyzing her findings, to help states and local communities develop proactive prevention strategies and build effective systems of care. She is also putting her vast expertise to work educating a new generation of treatment professionals, in Drexel’s online BS in Behavioral Health Counseling program, using robust technologies, including a virtual simulation of an opioid overdose.

“Given the sheer magnitude of the opioid crisis in this country, we are going to need more addictions counselors than ever before, trained in treatment approaches we know are effective. And I am so fortunate to have landed at a university that allows me to provide this education.”

To learn more about the online BS in Behavioral Health Counselor program, please visit

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