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January 12, 2023

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“When I think about work, I think about excitement,” Anaisa Flores says, her smile felt through the phone. “I want people to know it’s possible to better yourself.”  

Over the past year, Anaisa has experienced rapid growth in her career. She joined the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) as a peer specialist, started the San Diego Workforce Partnership’s Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Counselor Training program and completed 315 hours of education requirements, landing herself a promotion to a SUD Registered Counselor.  

She is now completing 255 hours of SUD supervised practicum at a NAMI clinic and will complete the remainder of her 2,080 supervised counseling hours there. “I would like to become a certified counselor and work in the field for a couple of years. Then I’d like to go back to school for a master’s degree in counseling,” Anaisa explains.  

Anaisa’s career pathway in behavioral health will prove invaluable over the next several years as San Diego County falls 8,000 behavioral health workers short of its population’s need. The SUD program is helping to fill that gap and support individuals making a significant improvement to their quality of their life through the reduction or elimination of substance use. Anaisa’s participation in SUD and hands-on training will reach thousands of people. 

Substance Use Disorder Counselor Training 

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How do I use the hope and ability to start my life over to help others and motivate them to do the same?

Anaisa Flores, Substance Use Disorder Counselor Training participant

When she looks back at the last couple of years, Anaisa is very aware of her progress and triumph over the difficult barriers she faced. Before joining SUD, she was working through challenges in her personal life, coming to terms with past substance use and recent relapses, while continuing to navigate how to work and live with a learning disability. While she was figuring out what she wanted to do next and “trying to find purpose in her life” Anaisa started getting sober.  

She first learned about SUD through her stepdad. He was enrolled in an internship through the Workforce Partnership program and shared his experience with her. He encouraged her to look into SUD as she had long wanted to become a case manager, supporting others on their path to health and happiness.  

SUD’s unique combination of education and supportive services—which provides one-on-one support and covers all expenses, including tuition, registration as a substance use disorder registered counselor, textbooks and certification—is designed to help individuals like Anaisa become a certified substance use disorder counselor. Individuals in recovery or with lived experience are highly encouraged to apply. “The value of lived experience as an SUD counselor cannot be underestimated,” says Cathryn Nacario, CEO of NAMI. “Being able to identify and empathize with a person’s journey in recovery is truly an act of kindness and compassion.”

This was the first time that Anaisa’s lived experience was seen as a strength rather than a weakness. She was inspired to take the jump and enroll in SUD, asking herself, “How do I use the hope and ability to start my life over to help others and motivate them to do the same?”  

Anaisa started SUD in spring 2022, finding the fast-paced program challenging at times since it had been some time since she was enrolled in school. “It was a mental battle to focus on study hours, learning to prioritize and getting through what needed to be done, all while juggling work and a personal life,” she says.  

Her career navigators, Natasha Cruz and Morgan Belden, were there for her from the beginning. She felt that their support was instrumental in helping her not get lost in the schooling part of the program. “Compared to her experience in college where she felt like just a number in the system, SUD made me feel heard and supported,” Anaisa shares. “This is a good program where support is received in the right way; knowing that someone was there to communicate with was huge.”

From Lived Experience to Experiencing Life 

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Anaisa has worked at NAMI for over a year in a clinic serving individuals referred for prescriptions and counseling. As a counselor, Anaisa is connecting clients to inpatient and outpatient resources, support, and programs. She is building up her caseload and starting to see substance use disorder clients. Her supervisors run weekly follow-ups and check-ins with her, which means that she is accountable to her clients and they are accountable to her.  

Most of her clients come from underserved populations with personal situations that are very tough. Anaisa believes it’s her job to “help them find hope again.” She wants them to know that they can find a solution and move into recovery.  

She explains that most people know how to get sober and how to get to certain points in their recovery, they might just need support to stay there. If someone comes in but decides not to pursue support, she says that she always lets them know that we are here for them, even if they aren’t ready for support now. 

“It’s easy to get boundaries crossed,” Anaisa explains. SUD taught her how to build healthy boundaries so that she can provide the best care for her clients without losing herself in the dark parts of their stories. “I see the hard part of it, but I can’t lose that hope. The counselors must have that hope. They must live that example and show clients that you can get out.”

Looking to the Future

That’s what I’m hoping to give back. Having a regular conversation or an average day can change someone’s life.

Anaisa Flores, SUD program participant

Prior to starting the SUD program, Anaisa didn’t realize that she could get a master’s degree in counseling. After meeting a supervisor with one, she instantly became determined to earn her own. “Now that I know it’s out there, I’m going to go after it,” she says.  

Anaisa is registering with the California Association of DUI Treatment Programs to become a registered substance use disorder counselor. Through NAMI, she’s taking classes at RIH Academy where she’s learning strategies to address all sorts of situations she might encounter while working. Once these hours are done, “I would like to become a certified counselor and work in the field for a couple of years,” Anaisa explains. “Then I’d like to go back to school for my master’s degree in counseling.”  

When she looks back on her own lived experience, she remembers how one counselor shared encouraging words that she had heard a million times. But for whatever reason, in that moment, on that day, the words hit differently and truly changed her life. “That’s what I’m hoping to give back. Having a regular conversation or an average day can change someone’s life.” 

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