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Substance Use and Meaning Making: “Tuning In, Tuning Out, or Turning it Up?

April 21 @ 8:00 am 4:30 pm EDT

Registration deadline 4/14/23

Capitol Plaza

100 State St
Montpelier, Vermont 05602 United States
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Kurt L. White, LICSW, LADC, is the Vice President of Outpatient services at the Brattleboro Retreat, a private non-profit psychiatric hospital founded in 1834. He is a clinical social worker by training, and he continues to practice with individuals, families, and groups in addition to his other duties. Mr. White has been a field supervisor at Smith SSW since 2006, and has been involved with classroom teaching in the summer program since 2010. He is a Fellow of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and is recognized as a Master Addiction Counselor by NAADAC – the organization for addiction professionals. He is a past president of the Vermont Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. His interests include group psychotherapy, psychodynamic theory and practice, anti-oppression practice in clinical and agency settings, addiction and co-occurring issues, and the emerging field of psychedelic psychotherapy.

It has been said that people are far more complex than psychology gives credit for, and nowhere is this more on display than when substances are involved. The person with a problem with alcohol, so the old quip goes, is the one who uses more than their doctor (or counselor), and whether such substances as stimulants, benzodiazepines, cannabis, and psychedelics are the causes of or solutions to one’s problems may depend on one’s lived experiences, in the moment. At the same time, many of the cultural stories and norms related to the use of these substances are changing dramatically every few years.
This program will explore both use patterns and treatment in the context of our present world. To do so, we will take a tour of the many reasons people have sought to use substances, and why they remain so popular in our present era. We will touch on the complex histories of drug use and drug policy in USA and beyond by exploring factors such as legalization, medicalization, new research, the enduring legacy of opioid epidemic (including both the rise of harm reduction and the sidelining of abstinence approaches, and the effects of the epidemic on a generation), and the rise (again) of psychedelic drugs as treatments for mental and addictive illnesses. Throughout, the presenter aims to explore these issues while retaining a humanistic perspective, looking to examine the often unquestioned ideal of individual autonomy, and the ways that substance use, as well as changes in culture and society, can expand and limit that autonomy (real and perceived).


8:00-8:50 am VAPA Annual Meeting (all welcome)

9:00 – 10:30 “Why use drugs when you can take medicine?:” The 21st Century, what’s new and not with alcohol and drugs, and why everything feels (and is) so bad right now; suicide rates; alcohol consumption; cannabis legalization and use; the arc of the opioid epidemic; harm reduction; peer support and recovery coaches, profesionalization and regulation; what we don’t even know yet about the pandemic’s legacy
10:30 – 10:45 break
10:45 – 12:15 The wish to be in altered states: history, meaning making, the science narrative, and what can get lost in clinical assessment process; humanism and autonomy, the wish to have choices and the limits of our imaginations
12:15 – 1:15 lunch
1:15 – 2:45 “How do we measure progress NOW, in individuals and in society?” Exploring what the evidence tell us, balancing evidence and what is the quality of the evidence, where should we worry and when should we rejoice
2:45 – 3:00 break
3:00 – 4:30 What does it mean to be a counselor/psychotherapist now? Exploring a new landscape, in the context of the old; if the poets can’t save us, perhaps they can help us to stay on task; the best and truest aims of our work, and how to find them; questions and answers

Learning Objectives:

  1. List two reasons that people may choose to use substances, other than seeking pleasure/avoiding pain
  2. Identify three trends in substance use and mental health in the past 25 years
  3. Examine at least three changes in the cultural context of substance use in 21st century USA that influence use patterns
  4. Explore ways of intervening that respect patient autonomy, as well as power of the substances people use to impede said autonomy
  5. Evaluate one’s practice, and consider ways that one can stay vital and curious in the work, even in difficult times