MARTI-CBH Regional Opioid Heroin Research and Outreach Initiative

  • Victor Garcia, director, together with Alex Heckert, associate director, and Erick Lauber, director of Community Health and Leadership, are spearheading this initiative, which is organized around Opioid Research Development, the Opioid Prevention and Community Health Initiative, the MARTI Summer School, and the Opioid/Heroin Treatment and other resources.

    Research Development

    Opioid research development involves developing research projects based on the findings of a major MARTI-CBH opioid study titled, “Opioid Overdose Death Rate Investigation.” The study was conducted by Victor Garcia, Eric Lauber, Alex Heckert, Christian Vaccaro, and Melissa Swauger. The major objective of this six-month study (June 2018 to December 2018) was to examine the many circumstances surrounding the rise in opioid-induced overdose deaths in the region from 2015 to 2017, and the subsequent drop in deaths in 2018. The study was conducted for the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission. To reduce the major problems inherent in gaining access to a difficult-to-study population, such as individuals with opioid use disorders (SUDs), data was gathered using the ethnographic method in four counties: Armstrong, Blair, Clarion, and Indiana counties. In all, 50 hour-long interviews of opioid and heroin users/ex-users in the four counties were conducted. Seventeen of these were interviewed a second time because they had recently survived an opioid-induced overdose. An equal number of professionals involved in this crisis were also interviewed. They include single county authority directors, district attorneys, coroners, treatment providers, counselors, EMS professionals, and law enforcement officers. The report for this study can be accessed online.

    The Opioid Prevention and Community Health Initiative

    Erick Lauber, director of Community Health and Leadership at the Mid-Atlantic Research and Training Institute for Community and Behavioral Health, has begun a new initiative titled the Opioid Prevention and Community Health program. Intent on developing new tools to combat the current crisis, a community-based approach is being taken to engage locals in the health of their own people. The driving idea behind the initiative lies in the prevention of drug use. Prevention reduces the demand for drugs in the first place, which will ultimately ward off hundreds, if not thousands of potential overdoses and subsequent deaths.

    The OPACH initiative has several objectives that focus on reaching out the affected communities. Firstly, a goal is to reduce the stigma regarding substance abuse to encourage users and their families to seek support. If those suffering from an addiction feel as though they will not be judged upon reaching out for assistance, they are more likely to successfully seek and receive proper treatment. A second objective lies in conducting a new public outreach campaign to alert the region to the severity of the current drug crisis, as well as educate citizens of the area about the causes and solutions to substance abuse. Third, the current treatments, interdiction, and recovery efforts are going to be greatly improved upon. Fourth, new talents, time, and resources will be recruited and coordinated to aid in the battle against the epidemic. Lastly, the information gained and programs developed will be shared with all of Appalachia, as well as other regions of the country.

    With the mentioned objectives in mind, OPACH has the potential to drastically better the lives of thousands of Americans. In time, the OPACH initiative formatting is hoped to be mimicked on rural college and university campuses across the country. With expert-level research and evaluation skills, communities throughout the targeted region, as well as in other areas of the US, will be able to streamline the best possible prevention practices. With a wide set of skills, tested resources, messaging materials, and a manual of best-practices available, neighborhoods throughout the country have the potential to be changed for the better, and the drug crisis could significantly be mitigated. 

    MARTI-CBH Annual Summer School Conference

    The MARTI Summer School is also part of the initiative. The title of the 2017 summer school was “Promoting Recovery and Wellness: For Individuals, Families, and Communities.” The many sessions addressed the opioid epidemic in the region, with a particular focus on responses from Western Pennsylvania. It was held from July 10 to 14.

    The MARTI-CBH Summer School Committee labored long hours in organizing the different sessions. The committee was comprised of Alex Heckert, associate director; Christian Vaccaro, director of training, and Melissa Swauger, research associate; Crystal Deemer, training and conference coordinator; and Dennis Daley, senior clinical director of Substance Use Services at UPMC Health Plan and professor of psychiatry and social work at the University of Pittsburgh.

    The conference covered a number of topics, including the following:

    • Substance use (SU) and disorders (SUDs);
    • Use of peers in treatment and recovery;
    • Educating educators on SU and SUD issues;
    • Efficacy of medication-assisted treatments for opioid and alcohol dependence; and
    • Stories of success and resilience.

    Efforts are underway to develop another MARTI summer school around this important public health problem. The tentative dates are to be determined.

    MARTI-CBH Opioid/Heroin Treatment and Other Resources

    The initiative also includes an opioid/heroin resource page on the MARTI-CBH website, which will become available in the spring of 2020. The website contains the following:

    • A listing with links to local and regional treatment resources; and
    • Resources on health and addiction.

    Kacie’s Cause Subchapter

    A local subchapter of Kacie’s Cause will be established. Kacie’s Cause is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating communities about drug addiction and offering information on resources for addiction treatment and recovery support. This subchapter will be located on campus and will accomplish the following:

    • Generate awareness of the heroin and opioid addiction crisis in Western Pennsylvania;
    • Convey the need for community support in the addiction treatment process; and
    • Reduce the stigma that often accompanies addiction.