MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) – A team of researchers at West Virginia University has received a three-year $1.35 million grant to reduce the impact of substance abuse in three West Virginia counties.
The Appalachian Regional Commission funds the grant. The work will focus on McDowell, Mercer, and Wyoming counties, all of which have high rates of HIV, hepatitis B, and C due to drug injections. The project, known as the POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative, aims to help find employment for people who formerly injected drugs and are from areas ruined by job losses. Dr. Gordon Smith, an epidemiologist in the WVU School of Public Health, is one of the researchers, and he said he and his colleagues are thankful for the funding.
We’re just so appreciative. This is an interesting culmination. We’ve been working now for the last 2.5-3 years in these counties, working, trying to understand the problem, trying to understand what’s needed, and this is really one of the roles, really, of a land grant university to focus on how we can help these most devastated areas of the state. And so we’re thrilled to be able to put all the planning and ideas that we have had developing this and to be able to actually implement it.Dr. Gordon Smith
Smith said an important part of the POWER Initiative would be controlling the infections related to drug use over the next three years. One way they are going to do so is by working with the Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center, which provides services in the counties. Smith described them as “one of the models in the state” regarding how treating addiction is supposed to be done.
Another important collaborator in the initiative will be state-certified peer navigator/recovery coaches. These are people in recovery, meaning they have had the lived experience and can better communicate with those struggling with substance abuse disorder.
These peer navigators, Smith said, will be vital because they will be the ones going out into the community, identifying people, and bringing them into the program. He said they would do so through encouragement and their ability to relate to the plight of those struggling with addiction.
“It’s not just a matter of we’re dropping them off at the door of the clinic and saying ‘great my job is done’ — no, it’s not,” Smith said. “The most important thing is they then follow these people up during treatment. If somebody misses an appointment for a treatment with us, getting their prescription renewed, then we work with them. The peer navigators, to go out and bring the people back in, find out what happened. They might have run out of money; they lost their identification card, or whatever it might be, and we’re trying to help in treating the whole person. And then also once these people get into a job, it’s to provide coaching and navigation from how they can manage and keep the new job.”
Smith said the goal is to find 15-25 people employment in each of the three years. Obviously, he said, there will be many more people who are approached but cannot complete the program.
Despite knowing that he’s not pessimistic because he recognizes the ability to help many people in the region. Furthermore, he said, it is a great opportunity to partner with other great organizations with a similar goal in mind, helping reverse the economic damage of drug addiction in West Virginia.
“We’re just appreciative of the Appalachian Regional Commission to give us this opportunity to collaborate,” Smith said. “We see this as a tremendous collaboration between the university, a land grant university and one of the important providers of mental health and addiction therapy in the region. That’s the Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center, which has its main offices in Princeton. And so we think this is a tremendous collaboration and a really good model as to how we can collaborate and work together.”