On the offensive

UND Clinical Social Worker Thomasine Heitkamp secures nearly $8M for better healthcare in rural America

Thomasine Heitkamp

Thomasine Heitkamp, professor in the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, recently has drawn nearly $8 million in federal grants for UND’s efforts to bolster mental health services and combat opioid addiction in rural America. It’s a much-needed boost, solidifying the University’s role as a regional focal point in a nationwide push to help under-served areas. Photo by Juan Pedraza

The University of North Dakota is uniquely positioned to address the urgent addiction and mental health needs of North Dakota and beyond.

That mission has been getting a much-needed boost from federal grants, solidifying the University’s role as a regional focal point for the nationwide effort to increase mental health services in rural America and to combat drug abuse, particularly that related to the overdose epidemic of opioids such as fentanyl, carfentanyl and others.

Thomasine Heitkamp, professor in the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, is a key part of the effort, starting with a five-year, $3.8-million grant she received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is an interdisciplinary, multi-institution grant,” says Heitkamp, a licensed independent clinical social worker with long experience in research on substance abuse, its impacts and on mitigation strategies.

“This grant will help us in our work with SAMHSA using SBIRT, or screening-brief intervention-referral to treatment—it’s really about getting professionals to use instruments that have a high degree of reliability to assess for alcohol and drug use,” said Heitkamp, the 2014 recipient of the UND Foundation/Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Outstanding Faculty Development and Service.

“We’ve already begun the process of infusing SBIRT practices into the nursing and social work curriculum, and some in psychology curriculum,” Heitkamp said. The University has previously received funding for SBIRT from SAMHSA.

Best practices

The award allows UND to build on SBIRT using best practices and preparing workforce for the future, Heitkamp said.

She said this effort—including the push to apply for the SAMSHA grant—began after a conversation with North Dakota State Sen. Judy Lee.

“Sen. Lee said the state needed to expand its efforts in behavioral health (including substance abuse treatment and prevention) and asked whether there was anything that UND could do to assist in that effort,” Heitkamp said. “I then was meeting other players at national conferences, when the SBIRT grant was just beginning.”

In short, Heitkamp was inspired, by these and other contacts within the academic research community, to write a grant that would serve the region.

“It was designed to help providers of services in addiction and behavioral health fields,” she said.

Heitkamp has since helped to bring in even more federal funding to address mental health services and drug and alcohol addiction in under-served areas of North Dakota and rural America to the tune of nearly $8 million total.

Regional partners

The UND-based effort now distributes funding to regional partners in the Mountain Plains Addiction Technology Transfer Center. The center’s service area includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

“We focus on treatment and recovery and expanding work force by using state-of-the-art training, technology assistance, innovative web-based tools, and proven workforce development activities to expand learning, change clinical practice, and advance provider proficiencies, hopefully to improve client outcomes,” Heitkamp said. That’ll include assisting providers with assessment, training, and using technology to enhance sobriety.

The efforts are “especially good for low population density, widely distributed areas — often with limited access to services,” Heitkamp said. “Access to treatment is a problem, especially in remote areas, plus there is a shortage of addiction counselors.”

Heitkamp serves as the project director of the program.

“What we want is to use best science we know to treat persons struggling with substance abuse, such as opioids, and that may include medication-assisted treatment, recovery coaches,” Heitkamp said. “That also includes thinking more holistically.”

Removing stigma

Heitkamp said professionals and researchers are thinking and talking about substance abuse disorders more broadly.

“We’re thinking about this as a disease and thereby removing some of stigma,” she said.

Heitkamp also notes that she’s working to change the perception of research.

“The public typically sees research as test tubes; so our challenge is to present it in translational ways so that the public values what we are doing,” she said. “This research is all about helping people get on the path to recovery with the appropriate supports.”