Connecticut ranks 29th in population size in the U.S., but the state ranked 9th in opioid related deaths per capita in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since then, overdose deaths nationwide have taken a slight dip, while Connecticut’s opioid-related death-rate has continued to climb.
“Opioid-related overdoses is a major public health challenge in the United States right now. It’s actually leading to a decrease in life expectancy,” says Amy Gorin, director of the University of Connecticut (UConn)’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP). “It’s a complex problem that needs some innovative solutions.”
To get at those innovative solutions, InCHIP hosted an Ideas Lab that brought together 38 faculty from a range of disciplines from across the campus. “It was a fantastic event because it really pulled from what have been traditionally silos at our university. We had people from the medical school, law school, social work, the arts and the sciences. We had so many groups talking for the first time.”
InCHIP’s goal was to have researchers look for opportunities to intervene with addiction/opioid overdose upstream of the individual becoming addicted or in danger of overdose. The framework for the approach is one used by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities to address complex public health challenges.
Beth Russell, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Human Development & Family Sciences and the director of the Center for Applied Research in Human Development. Russell studies self-regulation across the lifespan. “Substance abuse is an example of how people struggle to regulate their distress adaptively,” Russell says. One of the challenges of recovering from substance abuse is that most people weave together different types of supports to try and find something that works for them. “It’s their own sort of magic recipe of supports that might change over time.”
Recovery is by definition a chronic condition, Russell explains. “It’s a chronic relapsing and remitting health issue. And so the constellation of supports that people find early in recovery may not work for them five years later, 10 years later.” The greatest success in treating opioid addiction has come through medicine assisted therapies; including the use of buprenorphine or methadone, for example. “Retention rates are abysmal. But, studies have shown that if people can last a year they have a better shot at remaining sober for life.”
The team Russell joined includes six researchers, including some from the School of Medicine and the School of Pharmacy. The team is looking at what kinds of interventions and tools could be given to those who enter medically assisted therapy programs, including complementary and alternative therapies like mindfulness training. “We’re interested in articulating the crucial indicators that might lead a participant to one type of successful opioid treatment trajectory versus another.”
An Experiment in Collaboration
The InCHIP Opioid Ideas Lab was a first. While Ideas Labs have traditionally been five-day residential events, this one was a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings. It began with a kick-off meeting in-person on 9 November 2020 where teams were formed. A week later, teams presented initial ideas during a virtual half-day event. Teams met on their own and presented their ideas virtually a month after their first meeting. Five teams formed and they continue to work together on various projects. Some are applying for external funding, while others are in the process of being reviewed for funding available through InCHIP.
Gorin says the experiment was a success. “This group has shown their dedication. They’ve really engaged with their new colleagues in the weeks that have followed,” she said. Solutions being pursued by the team range from working with families to developing new medications for people with chronic pain — and everything in between. “It’s really sort of fascinating to watch these teams come together and identify parts of the crisis that they can target in a collaborative fashion. We think there’s a tremendous amount of promise for these solutions to have a positive impact on the opioid epidemic.”