Researchers at Washington State University will help rural families and communities prevent opioid addiction through training and education in a new project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The two-year project is led by Elizabeth Weybright, associate professor and adolescent extension specialist with WSU’s Department of Human Development, and funded by a $392,866 USDA grant.

“Misuse of opioids has gotten worse during COVID, and rural areas are more at risk,” Weybright said. “Through prevention, we want to reduce opioid misuse, and build family and community resilience.”

One approach will be to implement the Strengthening Families Program 10-14, an initiative aimed at families, caregivers, and children ages 10-14. Educational and discussion-based sessions focus on variations of healthy family functioning. Occurring regularly, these program sessions often break participants into separate parent and youth sub-groups for a more focused approach and dialogue.

Weybright has adapted this program from its national model to include content specific to opioid misuse.

Strengthening Families sessions have been shown to improve family relationships while building life skills in youth, potentially preventing a turn to risky behavior.

“Families that are stronger and healthier can prevent substance misuse,” Weybright said.

Extension training

The second approach is a training program that helps WSU Extension faculty and staff better understand the impacts of traumatic stress on families and communities, and effectively respond to people in crisis. The program includes training for Extension personnel and volunteers on trauma strategies and principles, and how to apply what they’ve learned in rural communities.

WSU’s Child and Family Research Unit (CAFRU) has a long history of providing trauma-informed training for staff in K-12 schools, and will adapt this approach for use with Extension.

Community mental health

In addition to bolstering trauma-informed practices, the grant will support mental health first aid training in rural areas across the state.

“We want to increase our communities’ abilities to be attuned to and handle mental health crises,” Weybright said.

“We know that drug use is tied to economics,” said project collaborator Michael McDonell, associate professor with WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “People don’t know when they are going to get their jobs back. The pandemic, and recent wildfires have increased isolation and anxiety. We know that social determinants of health drive addiction, and isolation can drive addiction too.”

Weybright said there is a clear link between substance use and mental health, and is hopeful Extension volunteers and staff can help build mental health resiliency in their communities. “If we can do that, long term, we are likely to have an impact on opioid misuse.”

While the grant focuses on federally designated rural communities, trainings will be open to all Extension personnel in the state.

“We’re taking WSU’s existing prevention discoveries and translating them for communities, giving them skills, knowledge, and resources they haven’t had before,” said Natalie Turner-Depue, faculty member with WSU Extension’s Child and Family Research Unit.

“This grant gives us an opportunity to collaborate in new ways, create new connections, and strengthen the ability of the university to promote healthy concepts, in ways we haven’t been able to do before,” she added.

This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Research, Grant Program #2020-46100-32837.