UA Professor Training Psychologists to Combat Opioid Crisis in Rural Areas

From the February 2020 Desktop News | UA psychology professor Rebecca S. Allen is working to train a new generation of psychologists to help combat the opioid crisis in the rural South.

“We know that Alabama has some of the most prevalent opioid use problems in the nation,” Allen said. “So this is something we should target, and something we should train our students for.”

The project, a three-year Graduate Psychology Education Program grant of over $1 million funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, will take 12 psychology graduate students to clinics around the state. Within these clinics, the students will receive hands-on training from an interdisciplinary group of experts in identifying those who need opioid treatment, creating treatment plans specific to each patient, and treating patients directly.

Currently, training is taking place at Watley Health Services in Tuscaloosa and the Capstone Rural Health Center in Walker County, Alabama. The team plans to have other satellite training centers through the University Medical Center Outreach Clinics in Demopolis and Livingston. As the project progresses, they hope to have at least one graduate student at each location for about 20 hours per week.

“This is a great opportunity to broaden my education and training,” Candice Reel, a second-year doctoral student, said. “Being on this interdisciplinary team, I’m learning about things like medications, medically assisted treatment, and therapeutic training related to substance abuse, which are not typically part of the graduate program. It’s really cool to work on a team with so many different professionals.”

Along with teaching students new skills important for clinical care, the project also targets rural and underserved populations. This not only serves groups who lack access to consistent healthcare options, but encourages students to strongly consider careers in rural areas.

“People in rural areas lack access to high-quality care,” Allen said. “Because of this, people leave rural areas, which cause hospitals and clinics to shut down, which makes care worse. It’s a terrible cycle. While treating people, one of our goals is to try and give students the experience of working in rural areas and, hopefully, show the benefits and need in rural areas.”

Above all, Allen’s goal is to help people who are struggling with opioid use disorder find ways to cope with pain and stop their dependence on opioids. If she can help alleviate that, she says, she will have succeeded.

“The goal is to actually improve people’s lives,” Allen said. “We want to teach them news skills to deal with pain, both physical and mental pain, so that they don’t rely on prescriptions. We do all of these assessments and provide these different treatments so that in three years, when our grant is up for renewal, the people who have participated in our project are better than they were when we first met.”