Opioid use disorder continues to wreak havoc across the United States. Opioids were involved in more than 68,000 overdose deaths in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Penn State recently received a $1.3 million, two-year grant from the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration to work with leadership teams in five states to prevent opioid misuse in rural communities.
Each of the states — Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia — have robust statewide extension systems that deliver training and technical assistance to their communities. With this grant, they aim to strengthen the ability of their rural communities to prevent the devastating consequences of opioid misuse.
Training is essential to help communities understand how to implement drug prevention programs that work, according to Janet Welsh, Penn State research professor at the Edna Bennett Prevention Research Center (PRC).
Welsh’s team at Evidence-based Prevention and Intervention Support is developing asynchronous, online training on the building blocks of prevention science, implementation science and evaluation. The online courses will be offered in all five states, primarily to providers of substance use and mental health interventions and local leaders who decide which drug prevention programs receive funding.
“We’ve spent decades developing effective prevention programs, and now communities need technical assistance and ongoing support to understand how to build, deliver and evaluate them to ensure success,” Welsh said.
Since each state has specific needs regarding drug prevention, project leaders from each state will develop and deliver two webinars related to those needs. For example, one of the webinars from Delaware’s team will focus on using mindfulness as an approach to stress management.
The grant also provides for free, in-person Mental Health First Aid training to 100 people in each of the states. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, suicide, psychosis and substance use disorders.
“Mental Health First Aid is like regular first aid. It’s designed to help people to identify and aid someone who is in crisis and refer them for expert help,” Welsh said, noting that Penn State Extension is one of the leading providers of Mental Health First Aid in the state.
The project team is dedicated to extending the reach of prevention programs to people, organizations and sectors not currently being served. The team members will collect data on who is not being served and then tailor their marketing, outreach and programming to fit their needs.
Welsh said that it can be challenging to convince people to spend their time and money on prevention rather than treatment, drawing an analogy between fighting substance misuse and fighting fires.
"When we are the most successful with prevention, nothing happens," Welsh said. “When there’s a fire in town, the newspaper will report it. But they don’t report on when someone installs a smoke detector.
“Prevention is the best-case scenario,” Welsh added.
Melissa Tomascik, PRC education strategy and planning manager, is directing the project, with project coordination by Christy Tomascik, PRC education program specialist. They are collaborating with Ghaffar Ali Hurtado Choque, assistant professor and extension specialist, University of Maryland School of Public Health; Alex Chan, mental and behavioral health specialist, University of Maryland Extension; Kim Silva, prevention educator, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension; Gina Taylor, extension professor, West Virginia University Extension; and Jenni Ficthorn, project coordinator, Virginia Tech/Virginia Cooperative Extension.