Only 10% of people in the United States that need substance use disorder treatment are actually getting it, according to Dr. Laura Brown, a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of New Mexico.

One of the University’s Grand Challenges initiatives, which launched in the spring of 2019 as a tripartite research project, has now been partially redirected from its original mission to boost that treatment number to studying the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on substance use disorders.

The Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team, led by Katie Witkiewitz and Brandi Fink, recently allocated funding for four pilot research projects examining the impact of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders on substance use patterns and mental health.



“With increased stress — financial, economic, physical and social isolation — we do have evidence that substance use is increasing (and) has increased,” Brown said. “There’s increased overdoses; we’ve already seen that. Alcohol sales are way up. Crisis (hotline) phone calls are up. Whether that translates into increased substance use is something that we can determine through this research.”

Each project was awarded up to $5,000 to implement the research, according to Fink.

“I think it’s a huge benefit. The more we’re able to educate not only ourselves but to get more information and research based upon what’s going on is definitely a tremendous plus,” John Tsabetsaye, an individual in recovery, said. “For those who don’t necessarily understand substance use disorders, but also for those who are in the field to look at, maybe, a different approach.”

The first proposal is focused on a change in drinking for heavy drinkers in New Mexico led by Witkiewitz, a Regents professor in psychology and Eric Claus, an associate professor at the Mind Research Network.

The next project chosen has a team investigating substance use patterns and behavioral health at an ambulatory substance use disorders treatment center, led by Brown.

“I’m interested in exploring whether these persons with severe mental illness and substance use disorders are actually experiencing increased depression, anxiety, PTSD and/or suicidal thoughts or not during this coronavirus pandemic,” Brown said.

Brown said they’re also looking at whether or not telehealth services can help with increased symptoms and addressing increased substance use.

Tsabetsaye said the pandemic and associated quarantine and stay-at-home orders is almost certainly affecting the mental health of people in recovery from substance use disorders.

“(Symptoms) have been worsened because people — even though they might be recovering — still have that mental health, that depression, that anxiety component. So when a pandemic like this (happens) — it just heightens the depression, the anxiety and so forth,” Tsabetsaye said.

Another team, led by postdoctoral fellows Judith Biesen and Lori Keeling, is focused on the resilience and steadiness of substance use.

The final project to receive UNM funding is focused on substance use among college students. This study is led by Matthew Pearson, an associate professor of psychology research.

According to Brown, the pilot award is required to be used within six months.

The Grand Challenges’ website states that the Substance Use Disorders segment has a broad focus on substance abuse with a more specific focus on opioid use.

The Substance Use Disorders component is just one of three Grand Challenges that UNM President Garnett Stokes announced the University would be pursuing in 2019. The other two divisions are Sustainable Water Resources and Successful Aging.

Stokes wanted these projects to be “large in scale, ambitious in scope and multi-disciplinary,” according to the Grand Challenges website. This is part of the initiative that maintains UNM as a leading research institution.

Grand Challenges committee meetings are open to faculty, staff, students and Grand Challenges community partners.

Megan Gleason is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716

Liberty Stalnaker is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo