The Mental Health Facilitator Program: A Multi-Country Evaluation of Knowledge and Skills Acquisition

Alwin E. Wagener, Laura K. Jones, J. Scott Hinkle

The global burden of disease related to mental health is astronomical and growing, with underprivileged countries being disproportionately affected. The Mental Health Facilitator (MHF) program was designed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) to address the need for greater mental health support within international communities lacking adequate mental health practitioners to provide services. The MHF program trains individuals within communities to provide support and necessary referrals for those struggling with mental health challenges. This study assesses the effectiveness of MHF trainings conducted in a diverse subset of countries and communities. Initial findings from the analyses found significant gains in participants’ knowledge of mental health and mental health facilitation skills across training populations.


Keywords: Mental Health Facilitator, MHF, mental health, NBCC, global



Over 450 million individuals around the world struggle with mental health concerns with 300 million people alone suffering from depression (World Health Organization [WHO], 2018). Mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (WHO, 2014a, para. 1). Mental disorders account for nearly 30% of the global burden of disease (i.e., what kills, injures, and disables people around the world) in terms of years lived with disability (Kessler et al., 2009; Vigo, Thornicroft, & Atun, 2016). In addition to the hardships that mental disorders place on an individual’s social relationships, occupational opportunities, and physical health, nearly 800,000 people a year die by suicide, with 75% of those individuals residing in developing countries (WHO, 2014b). Such staggering statistics include the rank of suicide as the second most common cause of death among young people globally (WHO, 2014b).


In addition to personal struggles, communities also face economic hardships related to mental disorders. The global cost of mental health was estimated at $2.5 trillion in 2010, with estimates of costs expected to reach as high as $6 trillion by 2030 (Bloom et al., 2011). Such costs can be devastating for individuals and communities alike, especially where resources are limited.


Despite the exorbitant number of individuals around the world struggling with mental health concerns and the associated individual, societal, and economic costs, only a small portion of people receive the support they need (Hinkle, 2014; Kohn, Saxena, Levav, & Saraceno, 2004; Wang et al., 2007). It is important to note that only one third to one half of individuals in high-income countries receive mental health care. This gap is even more pervasive in low- to middle-income countries, with a mere 15%–24% of individuals receiving any form of mental health support (Demyttenaere, 2004). Furthermore, according to WHO (2015), most of the world’s population live in areas where there is an average of less than one psychiatrist per 200,000 people and even fewer individuals trained in psychosocial interventions.

This gap in service provision and treatment stems from both attitudinal (e.g., misinformation about mental health such as low perceived need, stigma, and discrimination) and structural-level (e.g., availability of services, financial considerations, and transportation problems) barriers (Andrade et al., 2014; Hinkle, 2014). Although attitudinal barriers appeared to be more pervasive, overall individuals with more severe mental health conditions and those in low- or lower–middle- income countries cited financial and service availability barriers as being especially problematic. In 2011, WHO detailed the scarcity of resources available to treat and promote mental health across the spectrum of high- to low-income countries, which leads to a gap in the provision of treatment as well as the quality of treatment when it is available. For example, within high-income countries, approximately $44.84 USD is spent per person on annual mental health expenditures, a value which drops to $0.20 USD per person in low-income countries (WHO, 2011). Clearly, a strategy to lessen this gap in global mental health service provision is needed.


A Call to Action

Given the pervasiveness and deleterious consequences of mental health disorders paired with the dearth of individuals receiving treatment, there is a global imperative that countries begin prioritizing mental health awareness, education, and treatment and combatting the noted barriers to individuals seeking and receiving adequate care. Enhancing the awareness and education of not only individuals struggling with mental health difficulties, but also members of the community, would be beneficial in addressing attitudinal barriers, while providing additional resources through increasing the number of both service providers and service centers can help to eliminate structural barriers to services. Such solutions are reflected in the WHO’s (2013) Mental Health Action Plan, which outlines the following four objectives:


(1) to strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health; (2) to provide comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health and social care services in community-based settings; (3) to implement strategies for promotion and prevention in mental health; and (4) to strengthen information systems, evidence and research for mental health. (p. 10)


Several approaches exist to address these objectives, yet one program in particular is unique in creatively addressing multiple objectives at once. Developed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and initially endorsed by WHO, the Mental Health Facilitator (MHF) program aims to reduce disparities in mental health care by facilitating access to support individuals and mental health services in underserved populations (Hinkle, 2006, 2014; Hinkle & Saxena, 2006). Specifically, the MHF program trains diverse community members (i.e., mental health laypersons) in the knowledge and skills necessary to identify mental health needs, support those in need of care, work with existing care resources, and make referrals to mental health professionals as needed (Hinkle & Henderson, 2007). The program focuses on creating a culturally appropriate curriculum adaptive to community needs and contexts while also providing fundamental information concerning mental health and basic psychosocial interventions. Also, unlike many other programs, the MHF program is only tailored and implemented into specific communities at the community’s request. In this way, the MHF program content aligns with WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan by working to strengthen culturally appropriate information systems, implementing strategies for promoting mental health and decreasing the severity and pervasiveness of disorders, and enhancing responsive and integrated service provision within community-based settings tailored to the needs of that community (Hinkle, 2014).


Content of the MHF Program

The mission of the MHF program is to provide skilled, responsible access to quality mental health interventions. This is usually accomplished through basic first-contact help and referrals to mental health professionals with respect for human dignity and meeting population needs by balancing globally accepted mental health practices within local norms and conditions (Hinkle, 2014). Cross-disciplinary in nature, the MHF program includes competencies from psychiatry, psychology, social work, psychiatric nursing, and counseling, covering topics such as helping skills, diversity, violence and trauma, suicide prevention, and referral and consultation skills. The design of the training emphasizes important considerations and approaches in addressing mental health concerns while allowing for flexibility in implementation. This flexibility is a key strength of the training program and is necessary given the breadth of cultural and contextual factors affecting mental health and mental health care around the globe. Such flexibility allows local stakeholders to identify and adapt the training to local needs and the knowledge gained from the MHF training program to be implemented within existing care settings or to provide a foundation for care in areas where no established system is present. The information contained within the training and flexibility of implementation constitute a population-based mental health care approach to addressing health care needs across a broad range of social, political, economic, and cultural environments (Hinkle, 2014), and one that is growing in its evidence base.


History and Implementation of the MHF Program

The MHF program is a three-tiered, train-the-trainer implementation model that consists of MHF master trainers, MHF trainers, and mental health facilitators. MHF master trainers are selected by NBCC based on specific criteria, most notably the completion of considerable training and experience in mental health and education. MHF trainers are often professionals or paraprofessionals with mental health and teaching experience located in the community who can train community groups. MHF trainees are typically laypersons with an interest in mental health who then become the first line of support for community members with mental health needs. Following training at each of the levels, individuals are registered in the international MHF registry. Currently there are over 4,774 registered MHF master trainers, MHF trainers, and mental health facilitators located around the world.


The MHF program was first established in 2005, when NBCC worked in collaboration with WHO to establish a panel of experts, including mental health professionals from the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Turkey, Romania, India, Mexico, Botswana, and Venezuela, who would contribute to the development of the MHF training manual, curriculum, and implementation plans. This approach led to content and delivery plans that represented diverse cultures and thus diverse perspectives on mental health, mental health care, and the role of MHF master trainers, MHF trainers, and mental health facilitators. The curriculum and master training guide were completed and piloted in Mexico City in 2007 and 2008. Later in 2008, the first train-the-trainer program was delivered in Lilongwe, Malawi. To date, NBCC has partnered with 26 countries, including eight countries in Africa, five in Asia, four in the Middle East, and eight in Europe, as well as programs in Mexico and the United States. Furthermore, the MHF curriculum has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dzongkha (the language of Bhutan), Estonian, German, Greek, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Swahili (Hinkle, 2014).


The MHF Curriculum

When developing a partnership with NBCC, communities can choose one of five MHF curricula to best suit their needs, namely the original MHF training, an abridged MHF training, a training for educators (MHF-EE), an abridged MHF-EE, or a version for first responders (i.e., fire, rescue, and police). The five MHF curricula share core content aimed at helping professionals and paraprofessionals improve communication and helping skills, identify local mental health resources, understand important ethical considerations, and connect health providers with individuals within their community who are in need of mental health services (Hinkle, 2014). In addition to the core content, the curricula directed toward educators and emergency personnel contain tailored modules to best support those populations. With trainings ranging from 6 to 30 hours, the curricula can be delivered over consecutive days or divided into its modules and taught over several weeks, depending on community needs (Hinkle & Henderson, 2007).


The foundation of the MHF curriculum underscores the shared experiences of stress, distress, and disorder (Desjarlais, Eisenberg, Good, & Kleinman, 1995; Hinkle, 2014; Hinkle & Henderson, 2007). Given these theoretical underpinnings, the core modules cover topics such as basic helping skills, coping with stress, community mental health services, and community advocacy skills, and also introduce trainees to considerations around ethical practice and specifics about interventions such as suicide mitigation and trauma responses (Hinkle, 2014). Participants learn the benefits of investing in mental health, barriers to mental health care, cost-effective interventions, how mental health disorders impact families, confidentiality and privacy, and the broad mission of the MHF program (Hinkle, 2014).


In the basic helping skills section of the training, trainees cover development; diversity; verbal and nonverbal communication; facilitative skills such as listening, asking questions, and providing reflections; assessing for mental health concerns; empathy and understanding human feelings; and how to make referrals and effectively terminate relationships (Hinkle, 2014; Hinkle & Henderson, 2007). This information is followed by a discussion of how to understand problems, coping styles, and ways of effectively managing problems. The training then delves into recognizing stress, distress, and various disorders, including risk factors and mental health in children. The core modules conclude with discussions of suicide and trauma. Being the leading cause of death among young people in low- and middle-income countries, suicide is a pressing concern within all communities (WHO, 2006). Similarly, the pervasiveness of natural and human-born disasters and crises, such as war, forced displacement, human trafficking, typhoons, and wildfires, affects individuals of all demographics around the world and often goes untreated (Hinkle, 2014). A final topic covered in the core MHF training is the importance of self-awareness and self-care for mental health facilitators.


Moreover, the content in any of the five MHF curricula can be adapted to best fit the social, cultural, economic, and political realities and needs of any community, country, or region. For example, countries have chosen to add additional modules on child maltreatment in the Syrian region.


Past and Ongoing MHF Research

Building a strong evidence base is imperative to the development of a sustainable program that addresses the staggering gap that exists in mental health service provision. With limited resources spent on mental health, countries and communities cannot afford to implement programs that lack evidence supporting their projected outcomes and benefits. To this end, NBCC has and will continue to emphasize building a solid evidence base for the MHF program. Qualitative studies published to date (Luke, Hinkle, Schweiger, & Henderson, 2016; Van Leeuwen, Adkins, Mirassou-Wolf, Schweiger, & Grundy, 2016) support the perceived value and effectiveness of the program. Luke et al. (2016) reported that among the value and benefits, participants commented on how the program was culturally congruent and beneficially adapted to the needs of their community as well as how the program filled a need in terms of limited mental health resources. Participants further noted the considerable negative implications if the MHF program were to be discontinued (Luke et al., 2016). Van Leeuwen et al. (2016) also found notable positive perceptions of the MHF program. Participants reported that they gained skills in communication and referral. They also noted how they received important education on mental health and causes of mental health problems, and an enhanced awareness of mental health in communication. Finally, participants reported that there were both personal and community benefits to the program, such as an ability to better understand their own mental health and the mental health of family members as well as a reduction in community mental health stigma (Van Leeuwen et al., 2016).


However, to date no study has reported the quantitative outcomes of MHF trainings. Most trainings include pre- and post-training assessments of participants using a true-false, pencil-and-paper–based assessment. The assessment for the original MHF curriculum had three small adaptations involving changing the wording on several questions in 2009, 2011, and 2013. The adaptations were minimal, so all years were included in this study. This study fills the gap in the MHF literature by reporting on the objective data gathered from the pre- and post-training assessments of the original MHF curriculum.




This study uses a quasi-experimental research design to evaluate whether participants in 88 MHF original trainings demonstrated increased knowledge of mental health issues and approaches to address community mental health concerns. The trainings spanned from 2009–2017 and included all MHF trainings conducted outside of the European Union and the United States. For each MHF training, pre- and post-training assessments were completed by all participants in an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of training. The pre- and post-training assessments contained 50 true-false questions with the pretest administered on the first day of training and the posttest administered at the final training day, 5 days later. The present study analyzed the pretest and posttest evaluations using paired t-tests and a one-way ANOVA.



Participants who completed all items on both the pretests and posttests were included in the study, resulting in 1,392 participants from 15 countries. Of the 1,392 participants, only 735 provided descriptive information. For those participants, 431 were female (59%) and 304 were male (41%). The age range of participants was 17 to 75 years with a mean age of 36 years. The education of participants ranged from elementary school to doctoral (PhD) and professional degrees (MD and JD). There were 14 participants reporting only an elementary school level of education (2%), 150 with high school (20%), 151 with a 2-year degree (21%), 310 with a 4-year degree (42%), 99 with a master’s degree (13%), and 11 with a PhD or professional degree (1%). Given that trainings were conducted in countries within North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the data included a diverse range of participants in terms of nationality.


Research Questions

There were two primary questions investigated in this study. The questions were prompted by a desire to better understand the effectiveness of the MHF trainings: (1) Does the MHF program training significantly increase overall knowledge of mental health facilitation from pretest to posttest evaluation for participants? and (2) How does performance on the pretest, or initial mental health knowledge, affect possible training gains made between pretest and posttest scores for the participants?


Data Preparation

Prior to formal data analyses, the authors examined the data to ensure it satisfied the assumptions of the relevant statistical tests. Upon initial data examination, the authors determined that 77 participants of an initial 1,392 were outliers. The outliers were those with scores 1.5 times the interquartile range, either above the third quartile or below the first quartile. Based on this, the data analyses presented in the following sections were run with and without the outliers removed, and it was determined that the outliers did not significantly affect the results (the only exception to the outliers affecting the results is described in the results section). As such, the data analyses presented are using the remaining 1,315 participants after the removal of the outliers.


As the data set is too large for statistical normality tests to be accurate, skewness and kurtosis values were examined. The data set without the outliers had skewness (.208) and kurtosis (-.018), both values within the normal range. A visual inspection of the descriptive q-q line further supported the conclusion that the data is normally distributed.




Overall Mental Health Knowledge Gain

The first research question, asking whether the MHF program training significantly increased overall knowledge of mental health and mental health facilitation, was assessed using a paired sample t-test. The result of this analysis showed that there was a significant difference (t = -35.90, p = 0.000) between pretest (M = 37.64, SD = 5.58) and posttest (M = 41.17, SD = 5.24) scores. This analysis confirms the hypothesis that the MHF program training significantly increases the scores of participants from pretest to posttest evaluation.


Initial Mental Health Knowledge and Training Gains

The second research question investigated whether the starting knowledge of participants, as measured in the pretest, affected the training gains made between the pretest and posttest. To address this research question, four categories based on pretest scores were generated. A descriptive analysis was conducted to determine the quartiles of the pretest scores, and the quartiles were used to define the categories. The authors determined that quartiles are an effective means of dividing the pretest scores into four groups given that the relationships between the groups are clearly linked to the overall distribution of pretest scores. The pretest scores ranged from 15–50 (the range of possible scores was 0–50), and quartiles were generated in order to better understand the effects of MHF training on participants with low, medium-low, medium-high, and high MHF knowledge going into the training. The quartile scores were as follows: low < 34 (N = 317, M = 5.34, SD = 4.23), medium-low = 34 to 38 (N = 369, M = 4.13, SD = 3.62), medium-high = 39 to 42 (N = 340, M = 3.06, SD = 2.69), and high > 42 (N = 289, M = 1.35, SD = 2.04).


To compare the four groups and answer the second research question, a one-way ANOVA was used. The analysis showed that the differences between the scores of the four categories are significant (F[3, 1311] = 81.05, p = 0.000). A post-hoc Tukey HSD test allowed for a more detailed understanding of the difference between the four groups. The Tukey HSD test results indicated significant differences between all four groups. The details of the differences between means in the post-hoc test are as follows. The low score group showed a significant difference between pretest and posttest scores compared to the medium-low test score group (mean difference = 1.21, p = 0.000), the medium-high test score group (mean difference = 2.28, p = 0.000), and the high test score group (mean difference = 3.99, p = 0.00). The medium-low test score group was significantly different from the medium-high (mean difference = 1.07, p = 0.000) and high (mean difference = 2.78, p = 0.000) test score groups, and the medium-high test score group was significantly different from the high test group (mean difference = 1.71, p = 0.000). When running the one-way ANOVA with the outliers included, the only difference in significance found in the results for any of the analyses occurred between the medium-low and medium-high groups. With the outliers included in the analysis, there was no significant difference between those two groups, although all the other significant differences remained, and the overall trend of pretest to posttest score differences decreasing as the pretest score rose remained unchanged. The results of the analyses confirm that the lower the pretest scores, the larger the gain in knowledge from the training.


Post-Hoc Data Analysis

After considering the significant pretest to posttest gains, the authors became curious about whether the content of the pretest and posttest questions might be separated into subscales to better evaluate MHF training effectiveness. The observation that the questions on the MHF pretests and posttests naturally related to either knowledge or skills prompted the authors to separate the questions into the two subscale categories, MHF knowledge and MHF skills.


To generate the two subscales, one author went through the questions independently and categorized them for each of the three test iterations. Then, the second author went through the questions to confirm they fit the subscales. A paired t-test was used to determine whether participants demonstrated equivalent gains in both knowledge and skills.


The results of the analyses showed significant gains on both subscales. The mean gain on MHF knowledge was 1.41 (N = 1315, t = -22.86, p = 0.000), and the mean gain on MHF skills was 2.12 (N = 1315, t = -29.67, p = 0.000). The results of this post-hoc analysis confirm the hypothesis that the MHF program training leads to significant increases in both MHF knowledge and skills.




The results of the present study provide further evidence of the effectiveness of the MHF program. Previous studies have examined qualitative accounts of trainees’ experiences and impressions of the program (Luke et al., 2016; Van Leeuwen et al., 2016). The present data, however, provide objective evidence that the program is indeed enhancing trainee knowledge of mental health and MHF skills. This finding suggests that individuals who complete the MHF program have the requisite knowledge and skills to provide frontline interventions and needed referrals for community members struggling with their mental health.


Interestingly, the results also demonstrate that the documented growth in knowledge and skills is relative to the existing knowledge of the participant prior to training, whereby those with less initial training (i.e., lower scores on the pretest) showed greater gains in knowledge and skill from participation in the MHF training. Although somewhat intuitive, this provides evidence that the program is successful at enhancing the knowledge and skills of participants despite previous training in mental health. It brings all participants up to a similar, requisite baseline level of knowledge to perform mental health facilitation. Participants with little to no information regarding mental health can gain the needed knowledge and skills necessary to support the mental health of others in their community, while those with considerable information and training can refine their skills and knowledge for their new role.


Post-hoc analyses assessed whether the MHF program is equally adept at enhancing knowledge related to mental health and mental health struggles as well as the skills needed in mental health facilitation. Findings revealed that participants demonstrated a significant growth in both knowledge and skills. As such, the MHF program not only provides mental health literacy, but also the skills needed to support those in need. This is notable given the significant disparity of mental health literacy in both the developed and developing world (Ganasen et al., 2008; Jorm, 2000). Among professionals and laypersons alike, the lack of knowledge and understanding of mental health not only contributes to the treatment gap, but also the considerable stigma faced by those who struggle with mental health issues.


Taken together, the results suggest that the researchers and program developers can confidently endorse this program as one that leads to an increase in mental health knowledge and skills associated with mental health facilitation among both professionals and laypersons. In this way, the MHF program furthers the WHO’s (2013) Mental Health Action Plan goals of strengthening information systems surrounding mental health and clearly establishing a requisite foundation for the implementation of strategies and services. In its proposed actions for member states, WHO emphasized the importance of human resource development by “build[ing] the knowledge and skills of general and specialized health workers to deliver evidence-based, culturally appropriate and human rights-oriented mental health and social care services” (WHO, 2013, p. 15).


Our findings also complement the positive evaluation feedback of participants. In particular, Van Leeuwen et al. (2016) found that participants appreciated the increased knowledge they gained, noting that it was beneficial to themselves as well as their community. Participants noted that they had an enhanced ability to better understand their personal and family members’ mental health and that the MHF training helped reduce community stigma. Examined in conjunction with the present data, this suggests that not only are participants objectively gaining knowledge about mental health, they are aware of what they learned and actively and intentionally applying that knowledge to help themselves, other individuals, and their overall community better understand mental health. Given that the present study also demonstrated that participants are gaining an enhanced understanding of MHF-related skills, the researchers are hopeful that with their knowledge of mental health, participants are likewise intentionally putting their facilitation skills into action to support those in need within their communities.


Limitations and Future Research

The present study provides a notable step in further documenting the effectiveness of the MHF program, yet the limitations of this research must be taken into consideration and used for ongoing program planning and research development. Using true-false repeated measures pre- and post-training assessment could lend itself to bias. Within such situations, the trainee may recall, implicitly or explicitly, the questions asked in the pre-training assessment and may be primed for remembering the information needed to respond to those questions. Similarly, although the findings were statistically significant, probability suggests that true-false questions are more accessible to educated guesses rather than a depiction of accurate knowledge. In this way, having a multiple-choice format test with possible case scenarios to assess application in greater depth might provide a richer depiction of the knowledge gained. The present means of assessment also are vulnerable to a ceiling effect, whereby those with the most knowledge around mental health would earn the maximum number of points on both the pre- and post-training assessment. Although the present testing level is the most adaptive to all knowledge levels, perhaps a greater breadth of questioning to assess more nuanced components of the MHF skillset might be more helpful in accurately assessing the knowledge and skills gained by those coming into the MHF program with more extensive mental health training. An additional limitation of the assessments specifically was the post-hoc distinction between the skills and knowledge components assessed in the MHF training. In the future, greater attention to developing questions specifically geared toward these two necessary areas will be more effective in discriminating such gains. One final limitation of the present study and an area well positioned for future research is the lack of specific data regarding how the knowledge and skills are being used following the training.


Prior to this study, there was no formal quantitative data analysis to substantiate the reach of the MHF program. In addition to this research assessing the knowledge and skills gained through participation in the MHF program, there is the equally important next step of assessing how that knowledge is being used to address the goals of the program. Research examining the extent to which the MHF program aides in increasing mental health access for individuals in need of support and thereby decreasing the treatment gap among individuals struggling with their mental health would be especially important in addressing the over 70% of individuals in developing countries who do not receive the mental health care they so desperately need (Demyttenaere, 2004).




The growing number of individuals around the world with mental health challenges, coupled with the lack of knowledge, services, access, and fiscal resources to address the growing need, drives mental health to the forefront of worldwide public health challenges. Countries and communities in both developed and developing countries alike must embrace creative, economical, and culturally appropriate population-based solutions. The MHF program developed by NBCC (Hinkle & Henderson, 2007), initially in coordination with WHO and mental health experts from around the world, provides one such solution. Extant research on the MHF program validates the cultural appropriateness of the tailored programs as well as the extent to which community members believe they have benefited from the trainings (Luke et al., 2016; Van Leeuwen et al., 2016). The present findings further this research by providing quantitative data speaking to the effectiveness of the program at enriching participants’ knowledge and skills in relation to mental health. This burgeoning evidence base moves the MHF program one step closer to becoming a global best practice in addressing the notable and growing gap in mental health care around the world.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The first two authors were reimbursed by NBCC
for expenses related to this manuscript.
The third author is an employee of NBCC who
has developed and conducted MHF trainings.






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Alwin E. Wagener, NCC, is an assistant professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Laura K. Jones is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville. J. Scott Hinkle is the editor of The Professional Counselor. Correspondence can be addressed to Alwin Wagener, 285 Madison Ave., M-AB2-01, Madison, NJ 07940,

Addictions Content Published in Counseling Journals: A 10-Year Content Analysis to Inform Research and Practice

Edward Wahesh, S. Elizabeth Likis-Werle, Regina R. Moro

This content analysis includes 210 articles that focused on addictions topics published between January 2005 and December 2014 in the journals of the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), Chi Sigma Iota (CSI), the American Counseling Association (ACA), and ACA member divisions. Results include the types of addictions content and behaviors studied as well as the populations and data analytic techniques used in the addictions research articles. Whereas most articles discussed addictions counseling techniques, addictions issues among non-clinical populations, and professional practice issues, fewer articles addressed clients in treatment, utilized clinical populations, or analyzed intervention outcomes. Implications for addictive behaviors and addictions counseling scholarship in professional counseling are discussed.

Keywords: addictive behaviors, addictions counseling, content analysis, NBCC, ACA

Professional counselors have an ethical obligation to be actively involved in continuing education in order to remain current on relevant professional issues and scientific information related to their client population and setting (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014). Continuing education also is required by licensing and certification bodies for credential renewal. One way continuing education is achieved is through reading and contributing to peer-reviewed journal articles. Publications can expose professional counselors, counselor educators and counselors-in-training to new and innovative practices grounded in empirical research.

Professional journals represent “the repository of the accumulated knowledge of a field” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 9). A number of journals are produced by the major counseling certification and professional organizations, including The Professional Counselor, published by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, published by Chi Sigma Iota International (CSI); and the Journal of Counseling & Development (JCD), which is the flagship journal of ACA. In addition to JCD, there are 20 journals published by ACA member divisions. ACA member division-sponsored journals publish articles that inform counseling practices and contribute to the body of research on topics that are salient to the particular settings, populations, interest areas, and issues associated with the division. An area that is relevant to most professional counselors, regardless of specialty area or setting, is addiction.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2014 there were an estimated 21.5 million Americans (8% of the population aged 12 or older) living with a substance use disorder (SUD; SAMHSA, 2015). It is likely that many individuals with SUDs also have other co-occurring mental health conditions. In fact, 2014 estimates suggest 7.9 million adults (i.e., 18 years and older) in the United States had both a past-year SUD and a mental illness diagnosis. Among adolescents, approximately 1.3 million reported a past-year SUD; 28.4% of these (over 300,000) had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year (SAMHSA, 2015).

While not all professional counselors will specialize in addictions counseling, given this prevalence it is likely counselors will need to provide services to individuals with an SUD (Chandler, Balkin, & Perepiczka, 2011; Harwood, Kowalski, & Ameen, 2004; Salyers, Ritchie, Cochrane, & Roseman, 2006). In addition, professional counselors are more than likely to come into contact with clients of any age who are impacted by someone else’s addiction (e.g., friend, family member). This may explain why the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2016) requires that all counselors-in-training, regardless of counseling specialty, learn about the theories and etiology of addictions. Salyers et al. (2006) found little consensus among CACREP-accredited programs in how addictions issues were addressed; in fact, when asked where substance abuse was covered in the curriculum, more than 25 different courses were listed by CACREP program representatives. Counselors-in-training learn about addictions in a variety of ways, such as by taking a course in addictions, encountering clients with addictive behaviors in practicum or internship, or learning about addictions in other courses. Since addictions-related training seems to occur throughout the counseling curriculum, all counselor educators, regardless of their particular area of specialty, should maintain an awareness of current trends in addictions science and theory.

Given that knowledge of addictive behaviors is an important aspect of professional counselor identity (CACREP, 2009; 2016), it is necessary that professional counselors have access to scientific information and practice-oriented resources on addiction that are consistent with the philosophical orientation of the profession. Whereas related professions, such as psychology, public health and social work, produce peer-reviewed publications on addictions and addictions treatment that can be utilized by professional counselors, these resources may not reflect the qualities that make professional counseling unique. Examining the state of the counseling literature on addictive behaviors and additions counseling can inform efforts to improve access to scientific information and evidence-based practices that represent the core philosophy of the counseling profession. Further, an assessment of available addictions research can help to shed light on the state of the counseling profession, as production of original research has been regarded as a standard for measuring the identity development of a profession (Mate & Kelly, 1997).

Research on trends in addictions publications in professional counseling is scarce. Moro, Wahesh, Likis-Werle, and Smith (2016) utilized content analysis to investigate the frequency and type of addictions content within a sample of Association for Counselor Education and Supervision  conference programs and four ACA-sponsored journals (JCD, Counselor Education and Supervision, Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation [CORE], and Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development) that appeal to counselor educators. These authors found that about 2% of conference sessions and articles between 2007 and 2011 addressed addictions counseling. Most of the articles identified in this analysis focused on treatment strategies, particularly among diverse populations. Although the study by Moro et al. is informative, it is limited in that it comprised a 5-year time period and included only a small subset of professional counseling journals. Examining all professional counseling journals during a lengthier time frame would provide professional counselors and researchers with a more comprehensive snapshot of what aspects of addictions theory, prevention, intervention and treatment have been discussed within the counseling literature. This information can be used to inform efforts to promote the production of research and publications that address specific areas of addiction that are currently lacking.

The purpose of the present study was to provide an overview of available literature on addictions topics in professional counseling journals published between January 2005 and December 2014. Moreover, the types of addictions content, addictive behaviors and addictions-related research were examined. The research questions that guided this study were: (1) To what extent do counseling journals address addictions topics? (2) What addictive behaviors and types of content were addressed? (3) How much addictions research was published in counseling journals? and (4) What types of populations and data analytic techniques were represented in this research?


Content analysis was utilized to address the research questions. This methodology was selected because content analysis is a systematic approach to summarize and make valid and replicable inferences from written communication (Krippendorff, 2013). A review of the literature shows that content analysis has served as a valuable methodology to identify publication trends over time and highlight attention on specific topics within the counseling profession. Content analysis has been used in the counseling literature to examine topics such as multicultural counseling (Arredondo, Rosen, Rice, Perez, & Tovar-Gamero, 2005), pedagogy in counselor education (Barrio Minton, Wachter Morris, & Yaites, 2014), and research in counseling (Ray et al., 2011). Studies by Barrio Minton et al. (2014), Arrendondo et al. (2005), and Ray et al. (2011) were of journal articles during a similar time frame as the present study (i.e., 10 years). Content analysis procedures used in this study include identifying articles, generating and refining the content analysis protocol, conducting a pretest, data collection, assessment of reliability and validity, and reporting the results.

The research team consisted of three professors and two master’s-level graduate students. The professors each possess a doctoral degree in counselor education and specialize in addictions counseling. Two professors identify as White females and one professor is a White male. The graduate assistants, both White females, hold bachelor’s degrees in psychology, completed a course in counseling research methods, and participated in a workshop on content analysis facilitated by the first author before joining the research team. The graduate assistants were responsible for searching for applicable articles using predetermined keywords and identifying the total number of articles for each journal during the time period; the three assistant professors (first, second, and third authors) participated in the search for articles as well as in the development of the content analysis protocol and coding process.

The Professional Counselor, published by NBCC, the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, published by CSI, and 21 ACA and ACA member division peer-reviewed journals (Table 1) were identified as having published articles on addictions between the years 2005 and 2014. Because the purpose of the study was to present a survey of all available articles on addictions content in professional counseling journals between 2005 and 2014, all journals were included in the analysis even if they were not in press during the entire 10-year period under analysis.

A set of keywords was generated to identify relevant articles to be used in the study. These keywords included: (a) general terms taken from the literature on addiction and addictions treatment (e.g., addiction, prevention, relapse, recovery, abstinence, co-morbidity, behavioral and process addictions, and mutual support groups); (b) terminology drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), such as substance use disorders, dependence, intoxication, withdrawal, substance abuse and opioid maintenance; and (c) a list of drug classifications (and common pseudonyms) from the DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5, including alcohol (drinking), amphetamine, cannabis (marijuana), cocaine, hallucinogen, opioid, stimulant, gambling, inhalant, sedative, caffeine and nicotine (tobacco, smoking).

Two graduate assistants independently conducted electronic searches using PsycINFO, EBSCO and ERIC of the keywords, titles and abstracts of all articles (editorial statements, book reviews, errata and advertisements excluded) during the specified time period to identify relevant articles and provide the total number of articles published for each journal. Journals not indexed within these electronic databases were searched by reading the electronic version of each issue’s table of contents and article abstracts and keywords. Following this process, the first author met with the graduate assistants in order to reconcile any differences between their lists of applicable texts and total number of journal articles found. A preliminary list of 226 articles was identified and reviewed by each author to determine suitability for the study. Fifteen articles were removed from the analysis because they did not discuss addictions or addictions treatment; for example, two articles included the keyword “substance abuse” in the abstract, but not in the article itself. To maintain independence, one article was removed because it had been published twice.

The authors developed a content analysis protocol that included definitions and categories for each coding variable. To address research questions 1–3, the following variables were developed: (a) addiction-related content topic, (b) addictive behavior and (c) type of research article. In order to assess research question 4, (d) data analytic technique and (e) research population also were included as variables. Categories of each variable were initially developed by the authors based on their knowledge of the addictions literature as well as past content analysis research of counseling journals. The authors then pretested the protocol by coding 40 randomly selected articles within the sample (approximately 20%) to purify the coding scheme and conduct a preliminary assessment of coder agreement. Following this process, the authors met to refine existent category definitions, agree on the inclusion of additional variable categories and determine which variables would be single versus multiple classification. High inter-rater agreement (85% or higher) across all five study variables was observed among the three coders during the pilot phase. A pattern was not observed in the disagreements among the coders, suggesting that the framework possessed acceptable construct validity (Insch, Moore, & Murphy, 1997).

Once the protocol was refined, all articles were coded independently by two members of the research team (first, second, and third authors). Krippendorff’s alpha (Krippendorff, 2013), with a minimum acceptable value set at α = .80, was utilized to assess agreement among the coders. This coefficient was selected to capture inter-rater reliability because it estimates error in observed agreement attributable to chance and accounts for small sample sizes. Using a reliability measure designed for small samples was an important consideration because research question 4 relates only to a smaller subset of the sample used in the study. Further, the use of two coders for each article was to ensure that the total number of observations for each variable in this study exceeded the minimum number recommended by Krippendorff (2013) for an alpha value greater than .80 at the .01 level of significance (i.e., according to Krippendorff [2013] two coders would have to code at least 103 units). The “odd-man-out” procedure recommended by Insch et al. (1997), in which a third coder determined the final category when differences emerged, was used to reconcile disagreements between coders.

Coding Variables

Five variables were identified by coders in the study. All articles (N = 210) were coded utilizing three of the variables: addiction-related content topic, addictive behavior and type of research. Two variables were used to code research articles identified within the sample. Percentage of agreement (observed agreement [OA]) and Krippendorff’s alpha (α) were calculated for each variable.

Addiction-related content topic. The purpose of this variable was to identify the area of addictions counseling and research that the article addressed. Categories were initially drawn from content analyses by Ray et al. (2011) and Moro et al. (2016) and modified for the present study. Because the purpose of this variable was to identify the main content focus of the articles, a single classification system was used, which meant that coders were required to assign each article to one category. The use of a single classification system is recommended when coding variables that represent latent meaning and require greater interpretation by the coder (Insch et al., 1997). The variable included the following categories: approaches to counseling, professional practice, population variables, client variables, counselor variables, measurement, and effectiveness of counseling and preventative interventions (OA = 87.6%; α = .85). Approaches to counseling included articles that presented specific addictions-related counseling techniques, models or treatment programs. The professional practice issues category contained articles that described addiction-related counselor training, credentialing, ethics, diagnosis or trends in the field. Population variables included articles that described characteristics of a non-clinical population; the client variables category contained articles that addressed addictions or addictions counseling within a clinical population. Articles on the characteristics or perceptions of professional counselors were assigned to the counselor variables category. The measurement category included any article with a focus on instrument development, formal assessment or psychometrics. Effectiveness of counseling and preventative interventions represented articles that focused on evaluating an intervention or prevention program or technique.

Addictive behavior. This variable represented the types of addictive behavior addressed in the articles. Coders were instructed to record all addictive behaviors and substances described in each article (i.e., multiple classification) using a list of categories that included relevant keywords developed by the researchers for the text search. If a specific type of behavior or substance was not discussed, coders labeled the article as general substance use. Categories representing specific behaviors and substances included: general substance use, alcohol, nicotine, opioids, cannabis, stimulants, ecstasy and behavioral addictions (OA = 95%; α = .90).

Type of research. Each article was coded as non-research, qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods (OA = 98.5%; α = .98). Classifications were based on past content analysis research of counseling journals (Moro et al., 2016; Ray et al., 2011), and coders were required to assign each article to one category. Articles that were assigned to the three research categories (i.e., qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods) were used to address research question 4.

Data analysis. All research articles were coded in order to determine the types of data analytics used by the authors. The coding variable included 15 categories (i.e., descriptive statistics, regression analysis, theme analysis and coding, chi-square test, multivariate analysis of variance/multivariate analysis of covariance, correlation, analysis of variance/analysis of covariance, structural equation modeling, t-test, confirmatory factor analysis, exploratory factor analysis, other nonparametric test, discriminant analysis, canonical analysis, and cluster analysis), and coders were instructed to assign each article to multiple categories when appropriate (e.g., case where a single research article included multiple types of analysis; multiple classification). The scheme for grouping different types of data analysis was based on a framework by Erford et al. (2011) in their content analysis of articles published in JCD. Percentage of agreement among coders in the present study was 82.4% and α = .79. Because inter-rater reliability is slightly below the recommended minimum of .80 (Krippendorff, 2013), readers are encouraged to interpret these results with caution.

Research population. The various populations examined in the research articles were recorded using this variable (OA = 91%; α = .88). Because an article could potentially include multiple populations (e.g., African American, male, college students), coders were instructed to code each article with as many categories as necessary (i.e., multiple classification). When coding, research team members used a preliminary list of possible categories derived from several previous content analysis studies of counseling journals (Byrd, Crockett, & Erford, 2012; Smith, Ng, Brinson, & Mityagin, 2008). This resulted in 11 discrete categories: undergraduates, children and adolescents, adults (non-college, 18 years and older), families, men only, women only, clients in addictions treatment, addictions professionals, counseling students, multicultural populations and LGBT populations. To improve the conciseness of the findings, several smaller categories were combined to create the multicultural populations category. A twelfth category was designated for articles that did not include a research sample.


Research Question 1: To What Extent Do Counseling Journals Address Addictions Topics?

Table 1 provides a listing of counseling journals as well as the number of addictions-related articles in relationship to total publication. The percentage of the total number of addictions-related articles in comparison to total number of published articles was 4.5%. As expected, the Journal of Addiction & Offender Counseling (JAOC) published the highest percentage of addictions articles (76.1%). The journal with the next highest percentage of addictions articles was the Journal of Military and Government Counseling (13.8%), followed by the Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling (9.6%), the Journal of College Counseling (8.6%), and CORE (8.3%). Six journals published less than 1% of their articles on addictions: The Career Development Quarterly (0.0%), Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy (0.0%), Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology (0.0%), Counselor Education and Supervision  (0.5%), Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (0.5%), and Professional School Counseling (0.9%).

The authors also examined the first research question by calculating the percentage of addictions-related articles during each year of publication. The number and percentage of addictions articles published for each year is as follows: 2005 (n = 18; 4.0%), 2006 (n = 20; 4.5%), 2007 (n = 20; 4.7%), 2008 (n = 14; 3.0%), 2009 (n = 17; 3.9%), 2010 (n = 21; 4.5%), 2011 (n = 30; 6.3%), 2012 (n = 30; 6.4%), 2013 (n = 20; 4.0%), and 2014 (n = 20; 4.7%). The percentage of addictions articles remained relatively stable during this period; however, a slight increase in the percentage of articles published on addictions was observed in 2011 and 2012.

Research Question 2: What Types of Addictive Behaviors and Content Topics Were Addressed?

All seven categories included in the addiction-related content topic variable were represented in the data. The highest number of addictions articles focused on population variables (n = 57; 27%), or addictions issues within non-clinical groups. The content topics approaches to counseling (n = 43; 20%) and professional practice issues (n = 39; 19%) were the second and third most represented categories. Fewer addiction-related articles were published on the following content topics: client variables (n = 20; 10%), measurement (n = 18; 9%), effectiveness of counseling and preventative interventions (n = 17; 8%), and counselor variables (n = 16; 7%).

Additional analysis revealed that among the 18 articles in the measurement category, 14 different assessment instruments were represented. Whereas most instruments (n = 10) were discussed in only one article each, the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory-3 (SASSI-3; Miller & Lazowski, 1999) was included in eight of the articles in this category. Three instruments were included in two articles: the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey (Core Institute, 1994), CAGE questionnaire (Ewing, 1984) and the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (Selzer, 1971). Further, additional analysis of the effectiveness of counseling and preventative interventions category found that only four articles addressed prevention; three of these articles discussed a similar intervention to prevent college student drinking and one presented findings of an evaluation of a school-based substance abuse prevention program.

Table 1

Addiction Articles in Professional Counseling Journals, 2005–2014


No. of Addiction Articles Found

No. of Total
Possible Articles

% Addiction to No. of Total

The Professional Counselor




Journal of Counselor Leadership & Advocacy




Journal of Counseling & Development




Adultspan Journal




The Career Development Quarterly




Counseling and Values




Counselor Education and Supervision




Journal of Addiction & Offender Counseling




Journal of College Counseling




Journal of Employment Counseling




Journal of Humanistic Counseling




Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development




Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation




The Family Journal




Journal of Creativity in Mental Health




Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling




Journal of Mental Health Counseling




Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology




The Journal for Specialists in Group Work




Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development




Professional School Counseling




Rehabilitation Counseling




Journal of Military and Government Counseling








Note. The first issue of The Professional Counselor was published in 2011; Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation was first published in June 2010; Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling was first published in October 2008; Journal for Social Action in Counseling was first published in April 2007; Journal of Creativity in Mental Health was first published in September 2007; the first issue of Journal of Military and Government Counseling was published in January 2013; the first issue of the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy was published in 2014.


The addictive behavior coding variable also was used to assess this research question. General substance use was by far the most represented addictive behavior in the articles (n = 142; 68%), followed by alcohol consumption (n = 46; 22%) and behavioral addictions (n = 11; 5%). Specific substances were addressed in fewer articles: nicotine (n = 8; 4%), opioids (n = 4; 2%), stimulants (n = 4; 2%), cannabis (n = 3; 1%) and ecstasy (n = 1; 0.5%). The total values exceed the actual number of research articles included in the analysis because some articles addressed more than one addictive behavior. In the behavioral addictions category, sex addiction was addressed in three articles, three articles included a general discussion of behavioral addictions, and addictions to gambling, gaming, Internet, self-injury and food were each mentioned once.

Research Question 3: How Much Addictions Research Was Published in Counseling Journals?

This research question was addressed using the type of research coding variable. Approximately 60% of addictions-related articles (n = 127) were original research. Among these articles, 82% were quantitative (n = 104) and 13% were qualitative (n = 17). Mixed methods was the smallest category (n = 6), representing 5% of all addictions research. Articles coded as “non-research” (n = 83) included innovative methods papers, professional practice papers, interviews, and literature reviews on topics such as counseling theory and special populations.

Research Question 4: What Types of Populations and Data Analytic Techniques Are Represented in the Addictions Research?

Research population and data analysis were the coding variables used to assess this research question. Table 2 lists the various types of participants used in the addictions-related research articles. The most common population examined was adults (n = 49; 40%), or individuals (18 years and older) not enrolled in college, followed by undergraduates (n = 36; 29%) and addictions professionals (n = 26; 21%). The total values exceed the actual number of research articles included into the analysis because some articles included more than one population. The multicultural populations category represented a number of ethnic groups including African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans, as well as a sample of participants in Korea. Three articles were not included in this analysis because they did not involve research with human subjects (e.g., content analysis of substance use screenings).

Table 2 Types of Participants Used in Addictions Research Articles
Population Count








Addictions Professionals



Clients in Addictions Treatment



LGBT Populations



Children and Adolescents



Multicultural Populations



Men Only






Women Only



Counseling Students



Note. Three articles were removed because they did not include human subjects (n = 124). Some articles include more than one population. Therefore, the total values may exceed the actual number of research articles accepted into the analysis.

All 15 data analytic techniques were represented within the addiction-related research articles (Table 3). Descriptive statistics (n = 34; 27%), regression analysis (n = 31; 24%) and theme analysis/coding (n = 22; 17%) were the most used techniques. Data strategies less likely to be utilized include discriminant analysis (n = 4; 3%), canonical analysis (n = 3; 2%) and cluster analysis (n = 1; 1%). The total values exceed the actual number of research articles included in the analysis because some articles utilized more than one data analysis strategy.

Table 3 Type of Data Analysis Used in Addictions Research Articles
Data Analytic Procedure



Descriptive Statistics



Regression Analysis



Theme Analysis/Coding



Chi-Square Test












Structural Equation Modeling






Confirmatory Factor Analysis



Exploratory Factor Analysis



Other Nonparametric



Discriminant Analysis



Canonical Analysis



Cluster Analysis



Note. Some articles used more than one procedure. Therefore, the total values may exceed the actual number of research articles accepted into the analysis (n = 127). MANOVA = multivariate analysis of variance; MANCOVA = multivariate analysis of covariance; ANOVA = analysis of variance; ANCOVA = analysis of covariance.


Articles published in 23 professional counseling journals between January 2005 and December 2014 were examined to assess the scope with which addictions were represented in the professional counseling literature. Overall, 210 (4.5%) of the 4,640 articles published addressed addictions content. Not surprisingly, JAOC, a publication sponsored by the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, contained the most articles on addictions. It also is noteworthy that several journals with higher percentages of addictions articles were launched within the period of time the analysis was conducted (e.g., Journal of Military and Government Counseling and Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling). The introduction of these journals may suggest that increased attention is being given to addictions issues or, at the very least, to populations that are more vulnerable to experiencing the consequences of addictive behaviors.

The higher percentage of articles in 2011 and 2012 may have been associated with changes to addictions-related professional training and diagnostic considerations that occurred around these years. In 2009, CACREP introduced an addictions counseling specialty area and added language in their standards requiring all students to learn about the etiology, prevention and treatment of addictions; therefore, it is possible that during the years following these changes, there was an increased interest in the teaching of addictions content to counselors-in-training. Alternatively, the revised formulation for the diagnosis of SUD in the DSM-5, published in 2013, also may have contributed to the increase in addictions articles. Leading up to the publication of the DSM-5 there may have been greater discussion as to how addictive disorders are conceptualized and assessed.

The most common type of article published addressed addiction-related issues within non-clinical populations; fewer articles focused on topics specific to individuals receiving addictions counseling. Even fewer articles included research on outcomes of prevention and counseling interventions. The presence of only four articles in the sample (1.9%) that assessed the efficacy of prevention efforts is concerning given that prevention has been found to be a key facet of professional counselor identity (Mellin, Hunt, & Nichols, 2011) and is considered by CACREP (2016) as “foundational knowledge” (p. 8) for all counseling professionals. This discrepancy may suggest that despite being regarded as an important component of professional training and identity, little is actually done pertaining to prevention practice and research by professional counselors.

Although relatively few articles in the sample included addictions outcomes research, it is promising that CORE was established by the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling  in 2010 as a venue for outcomes research and program evaluation findings (Hays, 2010). Since the inception of CORE, its publication of addiction research has resulted in it being one of the top five journals in our study publishing on addiction topics.

Among the assessment instruments in articles that focused on addictions-related measurement issues, the SASSI-3 (Miller & Lazowski, 1999) was the most commonly discussed. The amount of attention given to the use of the SASSI-3 appears to be warranted considering the popularity of this instrument among professional counselors and clinical mental health counselors in particular. In a national survey of counselor assessment practices by Peterson, Lomas, Neukrug, and Bonner (2014), the SASSI-3 was the highest ranked test of addictive behaviors among all professional counselors. Among clinical mental health counselors, it was the third highest ranked inventory overall, behind the Beck inventories for depression and anxiety. Further, Neukrug, Peterson, Bonner, and Lomas (2013) found that more than three-quarters of counselor educators who teach assessment use the SASSI-3 in their courses. Despite the widespread use of the SASSI-3, it does have its limitations; the SASSI-3 can be cost prohibitive for some clients and requires that those who use it receive specialized training. As a result, examining the psychometric properties of other instruments, specifically measures that are free or more cost effective and do not require specialized training to interpret, seems prudent.

The limited number of articles addressing specific types of addictive behaviors is problematic. Although common physiological and psychosocial processes exist across all addictive behaviors, there also are unique factors associated with the etiology, prevention and treatment of the various drug classifications and behavioral addictions (Brooks & McHenry, 2015). Indeed, prevention and intervention efficacy often correlate with information tailored to each need. In light of the current opioid and prescription drug epidemic—a 137% increase in drug overdose deaths and 200% increase in opioid deaths from 2000 to 2014 (Rudd, Aleshire, Zibbell, & Gladden, 2016)—examining the prevention and treatment of this specific classification of substances would be a prudent area of research.

Analysis of addictions-related research revealed that nearly two-thirds of all articles in the sample represented original empirical research. This is higher than what Ray et al. (2011) found in their content analysis of 15 counseling journals in print between 1998 and 2007; these authors found that approximately one in three articles published included original research. These findings suggest that despite addictions not being a topic commonly discussed across counseling journals, there may be greater attention to conducting research on addictive behaviors by counseling researchers. Or, this may reflect an overall trend among counseling journals to publish research since the final year (2007) of the content analysis conducted by Ray et al. (2011). The level of sophistication of data analysis in the articles in this sample is comparable to findings from past content analyses of long term publication trends in specific counseling journals; for instance, descriptive statistical techniques were among the most commonly used methods of analysis in JCD (Erford et al., 2011) and Journal of College Counseling (Byrd et al., 2012).

One of the most commonly used groups in addictions research was college students, which may indicate an over-reliance on the use of convenience sampling across institutions of higher education. A concerning trend observed in the data was that addictions professionals were utilized more as research participants than were clients in addictions treatment. Greater attention to understanding individuals who are enrolled in treatment can help researchers and professional counselors identify successful ways to tailor and personalize counseling interventions to fit the needs of specific client populations. In addition, although several articles used diverse populations, fewer studies examined addictions issues among discrete groups of men and women only. Moreover, twice as many articles were found that focused on men compared to women only. Additional research examining gender differences is necessary considering that men and women face unique issues related to the development and treatment of addictive behaviors (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015).


The findings of this study should be viewed within the context of several limitations. An advantage of content analysis is that it can be used to help organize and summarize large quantities of information; however, by assigning each individual article to a category, it is possible that some distinctive characteristics of the articles in the sample may have been lost or trivialized (Riffe, Lacy, & Fico, 2014). In addition, the process of creating categories for the articles is researcher-driven and, even though efforts were made to develop the coding framework using the available literature, it is possible that different researchers would not have created the same levels of the study variables.

Other limitations relate to data collection and the coding process. Since the purpose of the present study was to analyze articles that focused on addictions, the sample was developed through a review of journal titles, abstracts and keywords only—an approach utilized in previous content analyses of specific topics within the counseling literature (Barrio Minton et al., 2014; Evans, 2013). In the unlikely event that an article focusing on addictions did not include one of the search terms in these three areas, it would not have been included in this study. Also, this study did not include articles in counseling journals that are affiliated with regional or statewide counseling organizations, such as The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, published by the North Atlantic Region Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, or the Virginia Counselors Journal, which is the journal of the Virginia Counseling Association. The authors chose to restrict their data collection to include only journals produced by NBCC, CSI, ACA and ACA member divisions because they believed that a content analysis of articles sampled from these national publications would provide a general overview of the addictions-related content discussed throughout the counseling literature.

Although inter-rater agreement among coders for most variables was satisfactory, reliability for coding the data analysis variable was lower than the minimal acceptable threshold suggested by Krippendorff (2013). Possible reasons for low concordance include the number of categories for this variable and the inconsistencies in how data analytic techniques were described within the various articles in the sample. Finally, as this study presented an overview of the types of addictions-related articles published in counseling journals, the quality of the publications was not evaluated during the coding process. This may be a possible next step for counseling researchers that could yield more rigor and, subsequently, evidence-based practices for addictions prevention and counseling.

Implications for Professional Counselors

According to the ACA Code of Ethics (2014), “Counselors have a responsibility to the public to engage in counseling practices that are based on rigorous research methodologies” (Section C, p. 8). When addressing issues related to addictive behaviors, professional counselors have a modest yet relatively diverse literature available to help guide their practice. Despite the fact that a large number of articles in the sample described approaches to addictions counseling, many of these papers were conceptual in nature and did not include original empirical research to assess counseling outcomes. To better assist professional counselors in using research-informed approaches, it is necessary for greater attention to be given by counselor educators and researchers to producing addictions-related intervention research and program evaluations.

The limited number of articles that evaluated treatment approaches also may represent a more endemic issue in counseling and counselor education. Many professional counselors report not feeling adequately prepared to operationalize and measure client outcomes, despite recognizing the need for these skills in their work (Peterson, Hall, & Buser, 2016). Although these skills have been identified as key research competencies in counselor education (Wester & Borders, 2014), it is unclear how these competencies are addressed in entry-level and doctoral research curricula. Researchers may wish to examine the ways in which professional counselors and counselor educators learn how to evaluate treatment outcomes. This may help inform the development of new pedagogical strategies that lead to an increased production of outcomes research on approaches to counseling and prevention in counseling journals.

In addition to a call for research on counseling outcomes, it also seems apparent that there is a need for more sophisticated research questions and hypotheses in research conducted on addictive behaviors. Addiction is a multifaceted phenomenon that involves the interplay of multiple biological, psychological and social determinants (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2011); therefore, the use of descriptive statistics or univariate procedures may not capture the complexities of how addictive behaviors are initiated, maintained and extinguished. The use of more sophisticated data analytic techniques by researchers may help address this issue. Structural equation modeling can be utilized to simultaneously test the fit of an explanatory model of addictive behavior comprised of multiple independent and dependent variables. For example, Wahesh, Lewis, Wyrick, and Ackerman (2015) utilized structural equation modeling to evaluate the fit of a mediational model of collegiate drinking that included multiple determinants of alcohol use. Alternatively, qualitative methods can be used by researchers to provide an in-depth understanding of how various interpersonal, social and cultural variables shape individual behavior (Likis-Werle & Borders, 2017).

One way that counseling journals can increase the publication of articles that address specific issues related to addiction is by offering a special issue or section on these topics. Journal editors can develop a call for papers that focus on addictions-related issues salient to their publication’s readership. Depending on the particular journal’s audience, this can include examining prevention, a specific classification of addictive behaviors, or intervention outcomes, areas that were not well represented in the current sample of articles. For example, in 2011 CORE dedicated a special section (Volume 2, Issue 1) to substance abuse outcome research and measures. The use of special issues or sections across counseling journals can ensure that professional counselors have access to information that is germane to their work. JAOC may seem like a natural venue for topics related to addictions in counseling; however, that perception is problematic because JAOC is geared toward addictions and offender counselors, making it possible that the particular populations studied, findings and implications in articles published in this journal are not as relevant to professional counselors in other settings.

Although journal articles represent an important source of professional development, it is possible that professional counselors utilize other venues for continuing education. Future researchers can examine continuing education practices of counselors to determine the particular sources of education and whether or not the information provided through these venues is consistent with the typical scope of practice and professional identify of the counseling profession. Relatedly, it also seems necessary to determine where else counseling researchers and counselor educators publish their research on addictions counseling. While counselor educators in CACREP-accredited programs are expected to demonstrate scholarly activity in counseling (CACREP, 2016), it is possible that some addictions counselor educators publish in journals outside of counseling that specialize in addictions or have higher impact factors. Journal impact factors are a method of determining a journal’s significance in comparison to other journals in the field. Some counselor educators may seek to publish in journals with a more favorable impact factor for evaluation purposes related to faculty tenure and promotion (Fernando & Barrio Minton, 2011). Assessing author publication trends by reviewing the curriculum vitae of addictions counselor educators can help identify the journals in which they most frequently publish. Examining these trends can identify the types of addictions-related research and other scholarly work that are being produced by counselor educators and counseling researchers but are not appearing in counseling journals.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.


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Edward Wahesh, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Villanova University. S. Elizabeth Likis-Werle is an Assistant Professor at East Tennessee State University. Regina R. Moro, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Boise State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Edward Wahesh, Villanova University, Education and Counseling (SAC 302), 800 E. Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085,