Skip to main content

New $1.35 million grant to prepare social workers responding to opioid crisis

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work is preparing social workers to respond to the nation’s opioid crisis, with support from a new $1.35 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D., will serve as principal investigator for the project, working closely with project coordinator Meryl Kanfer.

This new project, called UNC-PrimeCare OUD (Opioid-Use Disorder), is part of HRSA’s Opioid Workforce Expansion Program for Professionals to train a prepared workforce to address the behavioral health care and treatment service needs for underserved communities. This specific grant has the goal of expanding the MSW workforce to help combat the opioid epidemic and other substance use disorders.

UNC-PrimeCare-OUD (Opioid-Use Disorder) will work closely with several community sites, including Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham and Piedmont Health Services in Carrboro — both offering interprofessional, integrated Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for patients with OUD. The project team will work with Dr. Robyn Jordan from UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department to help create a continuity of care between UNC Health Care Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Program and community sites.

Over the span of the project (from September 2019 through August 2022), 81 Master of Social Work students will participate in specialized training, with 27 students selected each year. In addition to their regular curriculum courses, the students will complete studies related to the School’s substance abuse and addictions specialization curriculum. Their field placements will include settings in which behavioral health and physical health needs are addressed by an interprofessional integrated team of health care professionals providing treatment for opioid and other substance use disorders. Each of these students will receive a $10,000 stipend.

In addition to training future social workers, UNC-PrimeCare-OUD will provide continuing education activities for current social workers and other health care providers who serve patients with OUD. The project will create local and state systems to offer training, job postings and other resources for these professionals.

UNC-PrimeCare-OUD is modeled on a related project led by Zerden, UNC-PrimeCare, which has successfully placed more than 150 MSW students in integrated medical and dental settings, hospitals and other health care facilities. Integrated care helps to ensure that patients have a complete experience of care, including support for their mental and behavioral health as well as treatment for physical health needs.

More than 12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2016, and North Carolina’s rate of opioid-related deaths is higher than the national average. As a result, “We face an increasing need to provide services to patients with OUD that address the whole person,” Zerden says. “UNC-PrimeCare-OUD capitalizes on the strengths of social work training and expertise and allows us to be part of the solution.”

This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $1.35 million. The contents of the project are those of its authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.