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School of Social Work receives federal funding to address opioid addiction

Social workers at West Virginia University are leading the way in opioid treatment and prevention in West Virginia, where overdose rates are the highest in the U.S. 

Helen Hartnett
Helen Hartnett

The WVU School of Social Work has received 2018 Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training supplemental funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration to support these efforts.

The additional funds, totaling $200,000 over two years, will support specialization within WVU’s Rural Integrated Behavioral Health Training Program, where Master of Social Work students focus their studies on integrated behavioral health for people at all stages of life.

“When we learned that the funding would go to areas of the country where the overdose rates are the highest and there is a lack of access to treatment, we knew we didn’t have a choice—we had to apply for it,” said Helen Hartnett, professor of social work. “It is our responsibility as social workers to help the state.”    

Beginning fall 2019, the supplemental funding will provide a $10,000 stipend to 10 students (five per year for two years) committed to practicing in the area of opioid and other substance use disorder prevention and treatment in West Virginia and the surrounding region. 

Carrie Rishel
Carrie Rishel

Training will emphasize both prevention and clinical interventions for opioid and other substance use disorders. It will focus on interprofessional approaches to social work, particularly working alongside healthcare professionals like physicians, nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists.

“To be able to prepare students to really have the skills they need to address the opioid crisis is exciting. We have students who come into social work who say, ‘I’ve been impacted. My community is impacted. I want to give back, and I want to learn how to do that,’” said Carrie Rishel, professor of social work and director of the Rural Integrated Behavioral Health Training Program. “To be able to have a program that speaks to that passion and interest of the incoming students is really great.”

To implement the specialization, the School of Social Work will partner with Community Care of West Virginia in Bridgeport, West Virginia, and the addiction studies minor in WVU’s College of Education and Human Services.

“We see it as an opportunity to begin to bridge disciplines and work across campus,” Hartnett said. “In the trainings, the students are sitting right next to practitioners in other fields who are getting the same content. They are getting exposure to other professions in that way. There are lots of us doing different parts of the work, and this is a chance to collaborate so we have a more intentional connection. It’s all about providing the best care we can for West Virginians.”

Opportunities for students participating in the specialized training program include field placements with Community Care of West Virginia, interdisciplinary workshops focused on opioid and other substance use disorder prevention and treatment, intensive mentoring and leadership development.

“The students will learn medication-assisted therapy as well as other interventions. They will work with a healthcare team of psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses to look at using medication to assist people in treatment and other modalities,” Rishel said. “Community Care does a lot of prevention and school-based work, so the students will also be experiencing that perspective and get to work on prevention strategies in the school system.” 

Frankie Tack
Frankie Tack

The workshops will be led by Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and coordinator of WVU’s addiction studies minor, offered through the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education and Human Services. 

“This is a great opportunity to prepare students to address addictions in integrated healthcare settings. Addictions is a very rewarding profession, and our state is in desperate need of trained professionals to support those seeking recovery. This grant will give more students the support they need to receive this specialized training,” Tack said. “It is also exciting that our Community Care of West Virginia is interested in thinking beyond traditional professional silos to grow their practitioners’ skill sets. It’s going to take all of us to turn the tide on the opioid epidemic.”

WVU is one of only 20 universities, and the only social work program in West Virginia, to receive the funding.

“I am excited for the impact this project will have in building family and community wellness in West Virginia. The human and economic toll of addiction in our state has been devastating,” said Deana Morrow, director of the School of Social Work. “I strongly believe this project will help turn the tide by preparing social workers with specialized skills for addressing addiction at the individual, family and community levels. This project also exemplifies the School of Social Work’s commitment to collaborating across disciplines in interprofessional education and intervention.”