Newswise — UND is uniquely positioned to take on the escalating opioid crisis in North Dakota.

That mission just got a much-needed boost with a federal grant, solidifying the University’s role as a regional focal point for the nationwide effort to combat drug abuse particularly that related to the overdose epidemic of opioids such as fentanyl, carfentanyl and others.

Thomasine Heitkamp, professor in the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, recently was awarded a five-year grant totaling $3.8 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is an interdisciplinary, multi-institution grant,” says Heitkamp, a licensed independent clinical social worker with long experience in research on substance abuse, its impacts and on mitigation strategies.

“This grant will help us in our work with SAMHSA using SBIRT, or screening-brief intervention-referral to treatment—it’s really about getting professionals to use instruments that have a high degree of reliability to assess for alcohol and drug use,” said Heitkamp, the 2014 recipient of the UND Foundation/Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Outstanding Faculty Development and Service.

“We’ve already begun the process of infusing SBIRT practices into the nursing and social work curriculum, and some in psychology curriculum,” Heitkamp said. The University has previously received funding for SBIRT from SAMHSA.

Best practices

The award will allow UND to build on SBIRT using best practices and preparing workforce for the future, Heitkamp said.

She said this effort—including the push to apply for the SAMSHA grant—began after a conversation with N.D. Sen. Judy Lee.

“Sen. Lee said the state needed to expand its efforts in behavioral health (including substance abuse treatment and prevention) and asked whether there was anything that UND could do to assist in that effort,” Heitkamp said. “I then was meeting other players at national conferences, when the SBIRT grant was just beginning.”

In short, Heitkamp was inspired by these and other contacts within the academic research community to write a grant that would serve the region.

“It was designed to help providers of services in addiction and behavioral health fields,” she said.

Regional partners

The UND-based program will be part of distributing funding to regional partners is the Mountain Plains Addiction Technology Transfer Center. The center’s service area under HHS is Region VIII, which includes (in alphabetical order): Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

“We focus on treatment and recovery and expanding work force by using state-of-the-art training, technology assistance, innovative web-based tools, and proven workforce development activities to expand learning, change clinical practice, and advance provider proficiencies, hopefully to improve client outcomes,” Heitkamp said. That’ll include assisting providers with assessment, training, and using technology to enhance sobriety.

“This grant is especially good for the frontier nature of Region 8, that is, low population density, widely distributed, often with limited access to services,” she said. “Access to treatment is a problem, especially in remote areas, plus there is a shortage of addiction counsellors.”

Heitkamp is the project director; Nancy Roget, University of Nevada-Reno, is the co-project director for a subcontract with the group in Nevada.

“What we want is to use best science we know to treat persons struggling with substance abuse, such as opioids, and that may include medication-assisted treatment, recovery coaches,” Heitkamp said. “That also includes thinking more holistically.”

Removing stigma

Heitkamp said professionals and researchers are thinking and talking about substance abuse disorders more broadly.

“We’re thinking about this as a disease and thereby removing some of stigma,” she said.

Heitkamp also notes that she’s working to change the perception of research.

“The public typically sees research as test tubes; so our challenge is to present it in translational ways so that the public values what we are doing,” she said. “This research is all about helping people get on the path to recovery with the appropriate supports.”

By Juan Pedraza, for the UND Division of Research & Economic Development