Marshall University community working to fight Huntington’s opioid epidemic

Members of the Marshall University community are working to do their part to fight the opioid epidemic. From training recovery coaches to conducting research on the effects substance use disorder has on children, students, faculty and staff are involved with many projects to assist Huntington.

Amy Saunders, director of the MU Wellness Center, collaborates with and helped to start several of these projects, beginning in 2016 when Marshall’s President Gilbert brought together a group of faculty and staff to focus their efforts on the opioid epidemic. She also helps to secure grant funding for research through state and federal opportunities.

“We came together and developed a strategic plan to focus in all of our efforts and work with multiple agencies, like the city of Huntington,” Saunders said. “We’re working with the health department, Prestera, Recovery Point, lots of different groups. We’re focusing in on education needs around the issue, prevention and early intervention services, treatment services and recovery and reentry, like jobs, and we’re also doing research as well.”

Doctor Marianna Linz of Marshall’s psychology department is working toward receiving grants for her own research on children affected by substance use.

“My interest right now is on trying to understand the impact with substance use disorder at a variety of levels on the development of children who are in families where substance use is part of the picture,” Linz said. “So, we’re working on putting together a longitudinal study to look at kids who are exposed in utero and sort of how different risk and protective factors come together to affect development following birth. Hopefully we can underscore the benefits of treatment but also highlight how different risk factors like traumatic histories and intergenerational trauma can kind of create different pictures of risk for different kids.”

Linz and one of her colleagues recently submitted a grant and proposal to the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for a study to train recovery coaches, women going through recovery who support other women new to the rehabilitation process.

“We want to train women to be recovery coaches who are also moms, and what would come with that is helping outreach workers learn the skills, so they can also work with these moms on parenting and managing parenting stress in addition to a relapse prevention component,” Linz said. “We want to look at whether that might be a model that we could put into use in areas that don’t have quite as many formerly trained mental health people, to use people that are more well prepared health professionals and sort of cross train them in surmising that world, provide them support for their families that are dealing with substance use disorder.”

Saunders, who cochairs Marshall’s Substance Use Recovery Coalition, said it takes multiple groups working together to achieve their goals. On Marshall’s campus alone, the psychology, social work, counseling, education and English departments are helping in some way, as well as the medical, pharmacy and physical therapy schools.

“What we’re doing on campus with our coalition is we’re looking at this really holistically, and we’re working in multiple systems,” Saunders said. “And it’s not just us, it’s not just one entity, it’s multiple groups coming together and collaborating. That’s the only way that we’re going to solve this and help fix this problem.”

Faculty and staff members are not the only ones working on the issues, as students of all years and majors are creating change, too, for example, by researching the needs and trauma of children affected by opioid issues and studying the prescription drug monitoring data base.

“A lot of students are involved,” Saunders said. “We have a lot of students who are doing research on projects. We have a project that we’re working with the state bureau for behavioral health and health facilities on, and they’re doing a lot of provider education. We have graduate students who are helping us collect data on that information and helping us to do focus groups.”

Although the opioid epidemic is surrounding Huntington, Saunders said it first became a problem in rural parts of West Virginia, and she thinks research and education around the issue is key to recovery and prevention.

“In our state, the drug epidemic really hit rural, southern coal fields first,” Saunders said. “I think people hear a lot about our area, but you don’t hear as much about what’s happening in some of these more rural, secluded areas. If you really look at the data, it hit those areas first, in the early 2000s, and so many of us have been working on this issue from campus with partners in the community and partners at the state level for many, many years. I think what we’re trying to do is bring some of the research and education, things that we need to do on campus to help work with all other agencies. Nobody’s got a magic silver bullet to fix this issue, it’s going to be multiple groups focusing on multiple issues. It’s not an easy fix, it’s a nationwide problem, and unfortunately, it hit West Virginia because it hit rural areas first.”

Linz said Marshall students are not immune from problems caused by substance use disorder, but there are resources available to get help.

“I think we’re seeing students coming to campus whose families are impacted,” Linz said. “Various family members are experiencing difficulties with opioid addiction, and it seems to be cutting across a lot of different groups because people become addicted in a lot of different ways, including having it prescribed to them to manage pain. West Virginia is a state that has had somewhat of a high substance use disorder rate for quite a while. So, we do have some students that come to campus with substance use disorder, and that needs to be addressed. We should also know that there’s help available, and there are good options for students who may be struggling, either with an addiction themselves or with family members who are experiencing addiction.”

Some of the most important aspects of fighting the opioid epidemic are proper training, strong support systems and education, Linz said.

“The most important thing right now is training people in a variety of professions, particularly different health care professions, with how to recognize substance use disorder and how to provide support and grief intervention to people who are experiencing difficulty,” Linz said. “I think the more we can grow our capacity for people in all kinds of professions to address those kinds of issues, we’re going to be better off. Educate yourself, look for ways to support people who are seeking to get into recovery. It’s really important to be supportive and non-judgmental when people are experiencing these difficulties, help them secure treatment and really be supportive of them in pursuing that.”

Saunders said those in need of help may contact the 24-hour West Virginia Helpline or one of Huntington’s Quick Response Teams. Those numbers are 1-844-HELP-4WV and 304-526-8541.

Amanda Larch can be contacted at [email protected]