What Are Vital Components of Effective Counseling for Substance-Abuse Patients?

Examining addiction’s impact on family members and the importance of cultural humility.
Dr. Katharine Sperandio, Assistant Professor in Jefferson's College of Health Professions. Photo by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services

For patients with substance abuse disorders, deciding to pursue recovery takes courage. The counselors who guide them through that process require something else in addition to their expertise in order to understand what triggers a patient’s addiction; to help them maintain their determination and courage to succeed; and to navigate the stigma that so often colors society’s perceptions of those with substance use disorders. They must empathize with the patient’s humanity and the addiction’s entire impact – physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual – on the patient, and on their loved ones.

Counselors also recognize the importance of cultural humility, a life-long learning process of selfreflection and self-critique. Cultural humility involves: being aware of one’s personal beliefs and not letting them interfere with providing culturally relevant care; recognizing the inherent power imbalances in patientprovider communication, using patientfocused care; and demonstrating mutual respect and partnership with patients, families and co-workers.

Dr. Katharine Sperandio, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health, is an expert in these areas. She has several years of clinical experience working with diverse clientele struggling with addiction issues as well as other co-occurring mental health concerns. She also collaborated on the construction of the Multidimensional Cultural Humility Scale, a survey tool to measure a counselor’s cultural humility. Find out more about Dr. Sperandio’s areas of interest, her research and the questions she’s trying to answer.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I’m currently in my third year at Jefferson. I wanted to pursue academia so I could teach counselor trainees in master’s-level programs. The Community and Trauma Counseling program at Jefferson seemed like an excellent fit due to its training excellence, faculty and diverse student body. Everybody was so welcoming from the moment I set foot on campus for my interview. I genuinely appreciate how willing everyone is to collaborate with one another on scholarship and research. Jefferson granted me academic freedom and allowed me to pursue my own research questions

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: My primary interests in research include addiction counseling, family and addiction, and cultural humility. I recently co-constructed a self-report scale that measures counselor levels of cultural humility formally known as the Multidimensional Cultural Humility Scale. Before this, the only measurement available was the Cultural Humility Scale, which is based on the client’s perceptions. We developed this measurement to help counselors identify their own levels of cultural humility and address areas for growth or improvement.

I’m also conducting research on the experiences of family members who have lost loved ones to overdose. I’m particularly interested in identifying how compassion, self-compassion, forgiveness and hope impact posttraumatic growth among survivors.

Finally, I’m conducting a study to explore the experiences of addiction counselors who have experienced client death.

My mentor always tells me that we can tell a story through our research, which has helped me to see it in a different light. – Dr. Sperandio

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: Prior to attending my doctoral program, I worked as an addiction counselor in Philadelphia. This work fueled my passion to explore various research topics to expand knowledge and awareness about issues relevant to the field so that we can continue to improve professional practice.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?                                       

A: I genuinely enjoy collaborating with other colleagues and combining our interests. My colleagues have various interests and strengths, so it is always a neat process to intertwine our areas of specialty to create a project that is meaningful. Research allows me to develop my understanding of the world and gain clarity on specific issues in which I am interested.

My mentor always tells me that we can tell a story through our research, which has helped me to see it in a different light. As a researcher, I not only look for answers to the questions I am asking, but I also need to explain it to the world in a way that helps others connect with what I am exploring.

When I was an addictions counselor in Philadelphia, I worked with a lot of extraordinary people from all walks of life. They were not only the faces of hardship, but they also represented perseverance and thriving. As counselors, we are taught that the client is always the expert of their own story. My clients were some of my greatest teachers because they came in with their own expertise and challenged me to see the world differently. Part of helping our clients involves intricately understanding the obstacles that they are experiencing in their own communities. The memories of my former clients continue to inspire me to expand my understanding of addiction processes.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: There is still so much about addiction that is unknown. Part of my research mission is to expand our understanding of what addiction is versus what it is not. I see it as my role to confront the stigma. Broader society tends to focus on the negative aspects, including mortality rates and other negative consequences that are perpetuated through addiction. However, I approach this issue with a strengths-based perspective and explore how specific constructs like thriving and hope can promote recovery.

I also examine how the family can move towards recovery as an entire group. Many people assume that addiction is an individual issue, but in reality, it is a systemic issue. Addiction and recovery create a ripple effect on the family and larger community, both positive and negative, and we need to be cognizant of the multiple implications on surrounding family members. Even when an individual dies from their addiction, the impact on that person’s support system is long-term. My recent study, for example, uncovered that hope is a powerful factor in facilitating growth after an individual experiences the death of a loved one due to addiction.

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Build your network and don’t be afraid to collaborate with others. Working together adds to the excitement of doing research and makes you feel less isolated.

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