On the offensive

UND Professor Thomasine Heitkamp secures nearly $8M to fight addictions in rural America

Thomasine Heitkamp and Meridee Shogren

Thomasine Heitkamp (left), 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. Heitkamp is teaming with fellow UND scholars, such as Meridee Schogren, a clinical associate professor of nursing, and others to help administer the training to more mental health providers in rural communities across much of the Great Plains. Photo by Tyler Ingham/UND Today.

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 gotten 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.

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.

Real need

The funding ensures training in the six states – North and South Dakota, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah – which make up the Region 8 Mountain Plains Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.

“There is a need for this,” said Dennis Mohatt, vice president for behavioral health at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and co-director of the project. “There are a lot of generalists who need access to tools and evidence-based practices to better serve people who need help.”

“It’s hard to get confidential help and access to professionals,” Mohatt added, noting that there are just two child psychiatrists in South Dakota. Every rural county in the region, as well as some urban counties, is a mental health shortage area.”

UND faculty who are part of the project include trainers Andrew McLean, chair of psychiatry and behavioral science at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences; Maridee Shogren, clinical associate professor of nursing; and Sarah Nielsen, associate professor of occupational therapy at the SMHS.  Lynette Dickson, associate director of community outreach & engagement at the Center for Rural Health (CRH), will lead the CRH team, and Shawnda Schroeder, research assistant professor at the CRH, will lead the web team and support curriculum development at the CRH. UND will also sub-contract with the Center for the Application of Substance Abuse Treatment at the University of Nevada-Reno to coordinate training.

Thomasine Heitkamp

In addition to combating the epidemic of addiction in rural areas, Heitkamp and her colleagues also are working to reverse the stigma that tends to come with such afflictions. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Best practices

The award also 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.

Removing stigma

Heitkamp said professionals and researchers now are starting to think and talk 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.”