UND has been awarded a $3.8 million federal grant to fight substance abuse across a region stretching from the Midwestern prairie to the Rockies Mountains.
The dollars will come over the next five years as the university takes on management for its regional section of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the agency that distributed the grant.
Thomasine Heitkamp, director of the project, said its focus is mainly on training the next wave of substance abuse workforce in a technology-friendly approach to addiction services.
Heitkamp, who is the sister of U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., says the project isn't just targeting addiction counselors, but rather all professionals who may encounter substance abuse issues while working in the field. As such, the training takes into account conditions often associated with addiction, including post-traumatic stress.
"We look at holistic needs for training and tech assistance in those kinds of situations," Heitkamp said. "Addictions are complicated, and a lot of addiction comes from a lot of places. People don't typically have just one problem."
The tech strategy uses addiction-related web and mobile apps, as well as a focus on other resources readily found on the internet, such as podcasts. The distance element may be an especially good fit for North Dakota, where individuals in treatment for substance abuse can often live far from counselors and other addiction professionals.
The state isn't unique in that. Heitkamp and project partner Nancy Roget, who runs the Center for the Application of Substance Abuse Technologies at the University of Nevada-Reno, say it can be difficult to reach people in remote areas with only face-to-face methods.
In rural and "frontier" communities, Heitkamp said, there are "very limited resources available" for those seeking treatment at any stage of substance abuse counseling. That runs through the process from screening, to treatment, to keeping up with their recovery over the long run. Though substance abuse has long been a problem in the U.S., the recent increase in opioid overdoses and abuse cases has driven a larger focus on addiction treatment. The state of North Dakota recently received a $2 million federal grant aimed specifically at improving its approach to fighting opioid overdoses.
North Dakota isn't alone in its fight against substance abuse. The challenges presented by its rural character are reflected in varying degrees among the five other states-South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah-that make up Region 8 of the SAMHSA network, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Region 8 is now known as the Mountain Plains Addiction Technology Transfer Center and, as of Sept. 30, will be managed from the UND campus. Before the recent grant was awarded to UND, the region's management was located in the Utah Addiction Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The diversity of the region calls for a varied approach to training.
"The Fort Peck Assiniboine Tribe in Montana may have different needs-and probably does-than the city of Denver, Colorado," Heitkamp said. "We'll be working with as much information as possible to make the apps and training nimble to meet the needs of that region. It's easy to say we're going to use tech, but if there isn't bandwidth, we need to figure something else out."
Roget said the training offered by her center focuses on remote delivery of research-based practices and is designed for both university students and working professionals looking to widen their skill set. That often results in such methods as counseling performed through video conferencing systems and "prescriptions" for apps that send positive, treatment-centric messages. Tech-assisted counseling may also include suggestions to tune into recovery-themed radio programs or join digital support groups.
The tech approach isn't meant to replace traditional counseling methods, though Roget said studies have found distance counseling to be as effective as face-to-face contact. When implemented correctly, she continued, tech methods should allow professionals to enhance their current services and extend their work to more people in rural areas.
At UND, the program will include curriculum offerings for students in the upcoming semester, in addition to public health assessments and outreach through an opioid task force. Heitkamp described the effort as a multi-disciplinary push that presents an opportunity for the university to serve a great number of people across its region.
"This is responsive to some of what we've been hearing from the Legislature and physicians to build and expand that workforce," she said. "We've got to put all kinds of thinking, the best science and the best energy we can to fight this opioid crisis, and the ATTC puts us out there."