Through an upcoming addition to its certification, the Villa Maria Behavioral Health Clinic in Dundalk will be able to treat substance use disorders as a primary diagnosis, allowing clinicians to serve people for a greater range of reasons.

Until now, the clinic could not treat patients with substance use disorders without first diagnosing another mental health condition. Someone addicted to heroin, for example, could not come in for suboxone – used to treat opioid dependence – unless they had received a co-occurring mental health diagnosis.

Under the change, the Dundalk clinic will be the first within the Catholic Charities system to be able to draw clients looking for a substance use disorder treatment program. However, Karen Haughey, administrator of the Villa Maria Behavioral Health Clinics, said her team has already applied for similar changes in other clinics.

The clinics have always taken a welcoming, person-centric approach, Haughey said, but this change allows them to reach out to people in a different way.

“We’re eliminating barriers to allow people to get the help that they need,” she said. “When people reach out for help, they’re usually in crisis. We want to be available to them and make sure we’re inclusive and non-judgmental.”

The need was always present

A few years ago, the Villa Maria clinics trained all staff to recognize co-occurring substance use disorders among clients. Before that training, the clinics estimated 8 percent of clients had substance use disorders; after, they found it was closer to 40 percent, and higher when including nicotine use disorder. Once staff could identify the need, they could treat it, helping to reduce any stigma around seeking support.

This is particularly important in places, like Dundalk, where substance use disorders may be inter-generational, Haughey said.

“Kids are impacted by parents’ substance use issues so we also try to do preventative work in the schools,” she explained. “It’s a really big deal that we can treat people who just identify with substance use disorders.”

The new substance use disorder license adds to the resources available at the Dundalk clinic, which also houses a youth drop-in center. That space is designed for kids who are facing any sort of substance use challenges in their family, whether they need a meal or a safe place to spend time.

Haughey said the new license will also help shift the perception that Villa Maria services, which are often provided through schools, are primarily geared to children. Treating adults – and the entire family – is core to Catholic Charities’ approach to “one-stop” support.