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The University of Mississippi

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Pharmacy School Awarded Grant to Fight Addiction Stigma

Team of schools partner to reduce substance use in the state

OXFORD, Miss. – A $5 million grant secured by the University of Mississippi’s William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing is allowing the School of Pharmacy to tackle addiction stigma in Mississippi’s healthcare system.

The Magee Institute secured the funding from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The overall project is housed in the institute’s Jackie and Faser Triplett Center for AOD Research. Meagan Rosenthal, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Administration and interim director of the Magee Institute, is the project’s principal investigator.

The grant is funding work related to substance use disorder, with the goal of reducing drug use across Mississippi, particularly among young people. The School of Pharmacy, School of Applied Sciences, School of Education, Baylor University’s School of Education and Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization focused on transforming addiction treatment and ending stigma, are all involved in different components of the project.

The pharmacy school team will be focusing on stigma and continuing education for health professionals. The schools of education are working to increase awareness in the middle and high school settings. The School of Applied Sciences’ work centers around mental health first aid training for adults who engage with youth across the state.

“There are more people with substance use disorder in the United States than with diabetes,” said Stuart Haines, professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice, director of pharmacy professional development and principal investigator for the pharmacy school’s work on the project. “Stigma has a significant impact on whether people seek care from health professionals, and stigma is the number one barrier to treatment.”

According to Haines, only one in 10 people who suffer from substance use disorder has ever received any kind of treatment for their condition.

“Stigma also has an impact on health professionals’ willingness to screen patients, talk to patients about their disorder, provide treatment or referral and create an environment that’s welcoming enough that people feel safe to reveal things about their addiction or substance use,” Haines said.

Haines said substance use and addiction can cover a range, from gambling to alcohol to opioids.

“Addiction can be broadly defined as a behavior that a person regularly and compulsively engages in that negatively affects their life, their relationships and their ability to function in society,” Haines said. “When most people think of substance use disorder, they think of opioids because it’s in the news a lot and so many people are dying from fentanyl overdoses, but that’s just one type of addiction, though obviously an important one.”

Haines named the misuse of stimulants such as Adderall and sleep drugs as common issues affecting students today.

“Sometimes these medications are used under a physician’s care, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem if it’s impacting a person’s day-to-day life,” he said.

The goal behind Haines and his team’s work is to help the state’s health professionals perceive substance use disorder for what it is – a disease.

“Our role as health professionals is to help those who suffer from disease get treatment,” Haines said. “That includes being willing to screen for it, refer patients and talk about it. When we have the expertise to provide treatment, we should be willing to openly discuss it and not create unnecessary barriers for people who have substance use disorder.”

Mental health treatment has improved over time, with stigma decreasing and people being more willing than ever to discuss their mental health and seek help. The same cannot be said for substance use disorder, as the stigma surrounding the disease continues to linger not just in the healthcare system but in society at large.

Time is of the essence when it comes to treatment, which makes breaking down barriers to treatment crucial.

“It’s an illness that causes physiological changes in your body and brain over time,” Rosenthal said. “New pathways are actually formed in the brain, so the longer you’re in that space with the addiction, the longer it takes to undo those pathways.

“That’s part of the reason we often see the cycle of relapse and recovery; their brain has become hardwired. It’s not a choice they’re making.”

To address the issue of stigma, the pharmacy school team’s strategy primarily consists of educational interventions, including online messages and a podcast, as well as workshops around the state focused on skill development, like how to interact with patients in a way that is not stigmatizing.

“People with a substance use disorder come from every socioeconomic background, and health professionals are not immune either,” Haines said. “In fact, health professionals with a substance use disorder face unique challenges because of their access to drugs.”

Haines and his team are also offering on-site mentors to health professionals who want to alter the setup of their practice to be more welcoming to patients who suffer from substance use disorder or are at high risk of suffering from the disorder due to genetics or environmental factors.

Rosenthal praised Haines’ team’s approach, saying she believes these interventions will ultimately pay dividends.

“This is an opportunity to begin shifting the conversation around substance use disorder for our entire state,” Rosenthal said. “This is a substantial amount of funding to tackle the problem, and it’s a chance to prevent as many young people as we can from getting into these problems to begin with and ensuring that everyone around young people can have these conversations with students.”

While the scope of the project is large, the timeline for the work is short, as the funding covers only one year.

“This is the tricky part with research; it always takes longer than people think it should, but when we’re dealing with such a vulnerable population, we don’t want to get it wrong,” said Rosenthal. “We want to make sure what we’re putting together does what it’s supposed to do and benefits the population.

“When the year is up, we will keep looking for opportunities to continue this research.”

Despite the short timeline, Haines hopes to make a lasting impact and hopes his team’s approach can serve as a blueprint for other regions or states to follow. Materials produced over the course of the project will be made widely available.

By Natalie Ehrhardt