Treating Those Affected by Substance Abuse

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies graduate Therese Becker’s interpersonal experiences guide her work

Therese Becker’s passion for helping others through counseling dates back to high school: “When I was a senior, we had an assignment in which we had to think about what we wanted to do in life. What I came up with: social work or psychology.”

Also devoted to her spirituality, in college Therese studied sociology and philosophy at Saint Joseph College (now the University of Saint Joseph) in Connecticut. At the age of 19, she thought of becoming a priest, which in theory wasn’t too far off from her original goals but in practicality was not (and is not) attainable for Catholic women. Even so, Therese knew there had to be a way to combine these two passions into a career. It would just take life’s experiences to find it.

Today, Therese is a mental health clinical specialist, providing therapy to people with chronic mental health needs; her journey to this position has been filled with deep personal experiences and fueled by a thirst for knowledge.

1. Spirituality

Spirituality and spiritual care continue to play a big role in Therese’s career decision. Years after approaching her parish priest about becoming a priest herself, Therese learned that a woman could now earn a Master of Divinity (M.Div.), a degree for ordination to the priesthood. She received this degree from Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in seven-and-a-half years, studying on a part-time basis. From there, she was able to combine her passions for spiritual care and health care as a chaplain educator for various organizations.

2. Counseling

Therese went on to get another master’s degree—this time in Marriage and Family Therapy—from California State University East Bay. But she still wanted to know more.

“I have a specific reason that I wanted to learn about Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies,” says Therese. “I had discovered that the man I was going to marry was a secret drinker. I was shocked, but everything fell into place in my mind about the troubles we were having. The next week I was at Al-Anon and the relationship was history.”

Her personal experience being with someone afflicted with a substance use disorder, her own spirituality and her desire to learn more on how to help those who are suffering all led Therese to take courses in the Certificate Program in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies.

“I was motivated and wanted very much to understand addiction and be more wise in working with this issue,” explains Therese.

3. Continuing Education

While in the certificate program, Therese found real-world opportunities to learn even more and apply what she was learning, including work in substance use counseling.

She served as a therapist intern for Alameda Family Services, as a behavioral health intern with El Camino Hospital’s Dual-Diagnosis Program and as a counselor/relapse prevention instructor with The Salvation Army. Course material and classes provided the guidance for working in these environments.

And how much influence has the certificate program had in her career as a counselor?

“Oh my gosh! So much!” enthuses Therese. “I will tell you a few very important learnings:

  •  Mental health and alcohol and drug issues must be integrated. The old idea was that you took care of one before the other. I did not learn this in my MFT program.
  • A 12-step program is not the only way.
  • The concept of harm reduction was utterly new to me.
  • I learned that usage of mind-altering substances is a solution to a perceived problem, not a moral matter or about weakness of the will.
  • I learned about Motivational Interviewing, which is fabulous, and suits my values and beliefs.

“The knowledge I gained from the certificate program has been indispensable for my work,” says Therese. “In April 2017, I began working as a mental health clinical specialist in Pittsburg, Calif., working with moderately to severely mentally ill adults in Contra Costa County. In my work, I complete initial clinical assessments and provide therapy to people with chronic, persistent mental health needs. I get to use my life experience and previous education combined with the skills I gained in Extension’s program and maximize the level of spiritual and mental health care I provide my clients. I am grateful for what I learned in the Certificate Program in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies.”

Among the instructors who had the most influence on Therese’s career as a mental health clinical specialist are Jimmie Turner and Peter Goetz—the latter taught Field Experience in Chemical Dependency—CADC Option.

“Goetz really had a large impact on my understanding of addiction as a solution to a problem in that person’s life,” she explains.

And she finds that her classmates continue to be an inspiration, too. “I occasionally connect with people on LinkedIn. For example, one of my classmates just became the program manager of his program at UCSF. Now that is awesome!”

Looking Ahead

“The area that most takes my heart is working with those affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and treating those who have actual damage to their brains due to the prenatal alcohol use of their mothers.”

Other topics Therese hopes to learn about include the impact of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences on substance use disorders. She says, “I see the effects of trauma every single day in my office. It is often at the root of alcohol and drug use. I have seen clients who have a history of uncontrolled rages and intellectual impairment. There is so much for us to learn about this. I am very interested in the role trauma plays in substance use disorders. While I do not work directly in what is called AOD in my job, I do usually see trauma in those who have or who have had a history of substance use disorders.”

She finds it all worth it, despite any distress her services may put on her.

“This work is deeply rewarding. But having good colleagues and good self-care are essential to being happy and balanced in this field.”


Are you ready to enter the deeply personal and valuable field of alcohol and drug abuse counseling?