Mason looks to decrease substance abuse with new training program

by Sophia Delmar

(Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

(Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded Mason a three-year, $920,000 Health Professions Student Training grant to provide new training in screening for substance abuse.

According to Mason’s College of Health and Human Services, the grant is aimed at expanding the use of Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral Treatment (SBIRT), a method that focuses on “the early intervention and treatment” for people at risk or already diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

The grant is divided into two parts: a curricular infusion and a training component. Curricular infusion will affect social work, psychology and nursing students. The training component, which will be the central focus of the grant, will train 1,000 Mason students and 40 faculty members in early intervention screening for substance abuse.

In addition to Mason students and faculty, a “minimum of 200 to 300 community organization representatives” will be also trained, according to the College of Health and Human Services. The first community training half-day will take place Friday, November 13.

Dr. Lora Peppard, director of behavioral health services for Mason and Partners (MAP) and the principal investigator on the grant, stated that the purpose of the grant is “to catch people early on before a huge problem blossoms” by implementing new screening methods for substance abuse and motivational interviewing techniques. Early intervention training allows medical professionals to catch substance use that is “a little beyond mild” before it turns into a full-blown addiction, according to Peppard.

Peppard said this method of intervention will teach Mason graduate and undergraduate students “to move beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines.” As a result, she said, students will gain a more comprehensive perspective on substance abuse treatment and how to administer personalized care.

Peppard described the grant as planting seeds of knowledge that will enable students to develop important skills to bring to their professional lives. Faculty affected by the grant will be trained in the new techniques as well and will go on to educate future Mason students.

The grant will “most definitely,” says Peppard, have an effect on how the Mason community responds to substance abuse.

The substance abuse screenings will also affect services provided by Wellness, Alcohol, and Violence Education Services (WAVES) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), two programs that help students struggling with or recovering from substance abuse.

Although WAVES and CAPS are not directly involved with the grant,  Associate Director for WAVES Elaine Viccora anticipates the grant’s training to have a “ripple effect that will ultimately affect Mason students.”

Viccora said that although Mason’s student body is “below the national average” when it comes to substance abuse on college campuses, there are still a number of students who either abuse substances on a regular basis or are recovering from addiction.

But labeling a student as an alcoholic or a drug addict may not be the best approach. Instead, Viccora said, a better angle to take when considering addiction is to ask students if the substance they are using is creating problems in their lives.

If one approaches substance abuse from that angle, Viccora said, students feel significantly less “defensive” and can start considering the impact of their substance use and weighing the pros and cons of continued usage.

According to Peppard, substance abuse and mental illnesses “often times are comorbid,” meaning that they are medical conditions that can exist simultaneously in a person while being independent of one another. These conditions are often seen together, but one does not directly cause the other. Peppard said when someone is suffering from emotional pain triggered by an event or situation, he or she can feel a tendency to turn to substances for relief.

Because of this connection, Viccora said, services such as CAPS are often a part of the addiction recovery process.

To support recovering addicts in college, WAVES hosts events for students in recovery to get together, socialize and provide mutual support. Viccora said that in a “high risk environment” like a college, where substance abuse is prevalent, recovering addicts may have struggle to continue making progress, which has prompted WAVES to provide support and community for these students.

However, Viccora said “a lot of time students don’t know about us [WAVES] until they need us.”