How psychologists can help you get better treatment

Medications have long been the gold standard for treating opioid use disorder, but behavioral therapies can help with therapy and the comorbid illnesses that come with it.

12/21/20221 min read

On any given day in the United States, 130 people die as a result of an opioid overdose, which includes prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. "The numbers are astonishing," says R. Kathryn McHugh, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital who studies substance abuse. "Opioids affect almost every aspect of society, and the breadth of the problem necessitates an all-hands-on-deck response from the medical community."

Yet, according to Kathleen Carroll, PhD, a psychologist and principal investigator at the Center for Psychotherapy Development at Yale University School of Medicine, a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded center devoted to studying behavioral therapies for addiction, many health-care providers, including psychologists and other mental health professionals, are unaware of the role they can play in combating the epidemic. "Many people do not feel opioid use disorder is treatable, even if it is."

Researchers are still figuring out how to best develop and deliver behavioral treatments for persons with opioid use disorder, and psychologists can play an important role in that study. Meanwhile, clinical psychologists may help by educating themselves and their patients about opioid use disorder, supporting people who are affected by the disorder, and being comfortable asking patients about their drug use. (For more information, see "How You Can Make a Difference" on page 39.) "There isn't a family in the United States that hasn't been affected by the opioid problem in some manner," Carroll adds. "It's critical that we pay attention.