A study conducted released by Johns Hopkins University and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland showed that 10 percent of all driver deaths in Maryland are due to opioids. (Courtesy Photo)

COLLEGE PARK — The University of Maryland Extension (UME) was awarded $1,099,865 in federal funding for their Strengthening the Capacity of Rural Maryland to Address Opioid Misuse project where they will deliver training and resources to communities struggling with mental and behavioral health issues.

The funding, announced by Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05) and Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Oct. 7, was awarded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT).

CSAT awards grants to states and community-based groups that work to improve and expand substance abuse treatment services under the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program.

“There is no simple answer to the opioid crisis, which has touched every corner of our state, but we do know that education and awareness saves lives,” Cardin said. “This federal grant for the University of Maryland’s community-focused project will help ensure that the tools and resources necessary to overcome addiction and prevent opioid misuse reach individuals and families rural Maryland that have been particularly devastated by this crisis.”

With the funding provided by the Rural Opioids Technical Assistance Grant, UME, in partnership with the Center for Substance Abuse Research, the UMD School of Public Health, MayaTech and the Maryland Rural Health Association, will address opioid abuse and mental health in rural Maryland.

“This is a federal-funded grant that land-grant universities like the University of Maryland can apply, and it’s basically to increase capacity in rural Maryland,” said Co-Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland Ghaffar Ali Hurtado. “Nationally, they focus a lot on rural communities, so this was for specific rural counties.”

According to Hurtado, the initiative will focus on northwestern Maryland, particularly Garrett and Washington Counties, Cecil County in northeastern Maryland, and the Eastern Shore. They will deliver evidence-based training programs to residents to strengthen the ability of these rural communities to recognize, understand and respond to opioid misuse and other behavioral health issues.

While they are currently focusing on rural Maryland, they will later extend the program to more urban areas such as Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties and Baltimore City. However, with the lack of information in rural areas, UME decided to start there and connect them with local resources, Hurtado said.

“One of the things we noted while conducting a needs assessment was gaps in understanding the opioid crisis and available resources to help or get information,” said Dr. Jinhee Kim, professor and Family & Consumer Sciences Program leader with the University of Maryland Extension and principal investigator on the grant.

The program will have three goals. One of those will focus on prevention by teaching skills to 40 educators and 650 students as well as parents or caregivers throughout the next two years.

Delivered through the prevention program, Botvin LifeSkills, they will learn skills such as strengthening self-efficacy, social skills and strategies for drug prevention as well as avoidance and refusal skills to stay out of perilous situations. The curriculum also focuses on creating short and long-term goals and how to be more resilient.

The second goal involves mental health and first aid, where they will educate community leaders through the Mental Health First Aid Curriculum. They will train 120 educators in the program as well as 500 community leaders and service providers in the three rural regions so they can assist people who are showing signs of addiction.

Their final goal is to increase technical capacity in greater Maryland. That will include creating an advisory group on Rural Maryland Opioid Issues as well as a virtual network of UME and community educators, partners and local practitioners.

The virtual network will be a one-stop portal for resources that can be disseminated. It will include resources and research by the university and other organizations, webinars and follow-up resources.

“Ideally, increasing their capacity will help them acknowledge, be aware and understand the mental and behavioral health issues impacting their community,” said Kim. “You don’t have to be dealing with someone who has an opioid issue to gain resources and knowledge from this training – it trains people to assist anyone with a mental or behavioral health issue.”

The opioid crisis initiative encompasses what UME was created for, Hurtado said. With the mission of bringing knowledge and practical use to the community, UME serves to respond to the greater needs of the community.

In the beginning, its focus was mainly on agriculture but later expanded to youth and economic vitality. More recently, they have brought on family and consumer science as one of their goals, which focuses on health issues and how the family plays a role in strengthening and overcoming health challenges.

With Maryland ranking among the top five states in opioid-related overdose death rates with the largest increase attributed to cases involving synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, UME turned to combating the opioid crisis as one of their focus areas.

“We have a lot of tools and materials that we use throughout Maryland, but this one was really interested in how do we address the main concern in Maryland, which is the opioid epidemic,” Hurtado said. “This really fits with what we are doing and we brought players from different agencies, different departments within the university and different agencies within the state that have more extensive experience in that concept. So we are partnering and leveraging our resources.”

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