The Penn State Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse (CCSA) hosted its second annual conference, “Addressing Substance Use: Cross-Systems Solutions,” on Monday, May 3.
Held virtually via Zoom and drawing over 120 attendees throughout the day, the conference kicked off with a welcome from Stephanie Lanza, outgoing CCSA director, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Penn State Edna Bennett Prevention Research Center (PRC), along with opening remarks from Penn State President Eric Barron.
Lanza emphasized the CCSA’s growing capacity for research and partnerships by introducing the first 10 co-funded faculty hires and the incoming CCSA director, Paul Griffin, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering. She also announced that starting this summer, the CCSA will be renamed as the Consortium on Substance Use and Addiction (CSUA).
Barron discussed Penn State’s capacity and responsibility to urgently take on the complex issues of substance use as they impact the lives of individuals, families and their communities, especially considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of substance use disorders.
The conference convened four panels, each focusing on a different system — education, faith-based, corrections, and healthcare — followed by concluding remarks presented by David Saunders, director of the Office of Health Equity at the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Janet Welsh, research professor at the PRC, led a discussion about the challenges and successes of developing and implementing evidence-based substance use prevention programs in schools, notably the PROSPER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) program. PROSPER targets sixth and seventh graders so that young people are engaged before most of them start misusing substances. In sixth grade, children and their caregivers are invited to an extracurricular program designed to build communication, boundaries and trust in ways that protect young people from substance use over time. In school during the seventh grade, students learn social-emotional and decision-making skills that help them avoid substance use.
The session featured panelists Paul Kazmarcik from the Carbondale Area School District, Scott Gest from the University of Virginia, and Melissa Tomascik from Penn State. Panelists brought up the challenges of securing funding and working with both state and local teams to advance the implementation of PROSPER in different areas around the commonwealth.
Stressing the importance of networking and collaboration with school districts and community partners, Tomascik said, “We get so caught up sometimes in programming and getting everything done that we have to keep our finger on the pulse and networking with local stakeholders and community organizations, including healthcare systems.”
Paul Kazmarcik emphasized that sustainability, especially in terms of funding, was crucial to the continued success and expansion of PROSPER and other educational extension programs.
The second session discussed the challenges and opportunities of engaging the faith-based community, led by Christian Thrasher from the Clinton Foundation with Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman from Chabad Intown located in Atlanta, Rev. Melissa Maher from Mercy Street United Methodist Church in Houston, and Imam Dr. Basem Hamid from the Shadow Creek Muslim Community Center in Pearland, Texas. Thrasher emphasized the ability of faith leaders to foster change and influence attitudes through reaching people who are in distress in their communities.
Maher and Schusterman talked about how prioritizing education and assistance for people in recovery and treatment and simply changing the language used in their respective communities was critical for de-stigmatization of substance-use disorders.
“I think it’s very important for us faith leaders to marry faith and science and use a combined approach to help people with addictions, but more importantly for us to not lose believers for any faith,” said Hamid.
The third session focused on the impact of the opioid crisis on the correctional system and featured chair Derek Kreager, Liberal Arts professor of sociology and criminology and director of the Criminal Justice Research Center with panelists Steven Seitchik and Kristofer "Bret" Bucklen, both from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and Jared Lutz from the RASE Community Recovery Organization.
Kreager started the session with a poll for attendees, noting that 12% of individuals coming into the correctional system are diagnosed with opioid use disorders.
Bucklen and Seitchik talked about the strong resistance in corrections to using medication-assisted treatments (MAT) because medication compliance within the inmate population can be difficult. However, after completing a successful MAT pilot program, Bucklen and other people at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections were able to implement it across the system.
Emphasizing the importance of the continuum of care after formally incarcerated individuals re-enter their communities, Lutz said, “What we’re seeing is a unified effort from the criminal justice system and the community. And understanding that this is a problem that the community faces, and there is a solution to that. I think it’s taken a great deal of effort to form meaningful partnerships.”
The last panel focused on advancing healthcare innovations to tackle substance use issues and was chaired by Jennifer Kraschnewski, professor of medicine and public health sciences and the Vice chair of clinical research in the Department of Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine. The discussion featured panelists Sheryl Ryan from the College of Medicine, Megna Patel from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and Linda Thomas-Hemak from the Wright Center for Community Health.
Patel brought up the establishment of the “hub and spoke model,” known as the Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication-Assisted Treatment (PacMAT) program and described how that program supports providers with treating substance use disorder patients. She also discussed how the commonwealth has been working with commercial health plans and managed care organizations to help patients directly find providers.
Thomas-Hemak stated that the Wright Center for Community Health was already a PacMAT-affiliated organization and actively encouraged providers participating in their programs to complete MAT training. However, she noted that despite some doctors receiving their MAT waiver, they are still uncomfortable with treating patients with substance use disorders because changing behaviors in the healthcare delivery system is difficult.
Echoing sentiments from other panels, Ryan stressed the importance of developing partnerships and implementing programs like an addiction medicine fellowship to allow providers to learn basic training about addiction medicine, even if it was not their medical specialty.
It takes a village
In the final session of the day, David Saunders, director of the Office of Health Equity at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, talked about how the social and political determinants of health can impact substance use disorders, especially for people of color.
“Social determinants of health are basically where we live, work, and play. Economic stability drives much of our health and healthcare,” said Saunders. “Political determinants of health, on the other hand, mean that political power can determine healthcare funding and policy practices, even shape the language used in policymaking.”
Saunders encouraged attendees to examine substance use and addiction issues through an equity lens.
Those who missed this year’s conference may view all the panel sessions, available on the Social Science Research Institute’s YouTube channel. Follow CCSA’s work on Twitter and subscribe to the monthly newsletter for more updates about research, events and other opportunities.