For nearly two decades, the state has contracted with the School of Social Work’s Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program (BHRP) to provide training and technical assistance in mental health and substance abuse services. This year, BHRP staff is considering new ways to better serve professionals in the field, as well as exploring new initiatives to further assist adults and children.
Leading these efforts are School Professor Kim Strom-Gottfried, who was named BHRP’s principal investigator last summer, and Tara Bohley, who was recently hired as a clinical assistant professor and BHRP’s new program coordinator. Strom-Gottfried is the Smith P. Theimann Distinguished Professor for Ethics and Professional Practice; Bohley is the former senior human services planner/evaluator at Forsyth County Department of Social Services in Winston-Salem.
Both say they see exciting opportunities for BHRP to address some of the state’s unmet needs.
“As I think about going forward, I see us still trying to bring cutting-edge research and evidence-based practice to a wide variety of professionals, including to the state’s constituents,” Strom-Gottfried said, referring to the N.C. Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services. “But I think we’re also looking at other niches that need to be filled around issues of substance abuse and mental health.”
Although BHRP is widely recognized for its classroom and online trainings around addiction, including practical guides for parents, program leaders said they are eager to strengthen resources and support around mental health. One project staff members are particularly interested in pursuing is “Mental Health First Aid.” The evidence-based curriculum has been used in other states and internationally to teach the public about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to respond to mental health crises. The topic is timely, Strom-Gottfried said, given the current national attention around gun violence and the role of mental health services. Most of these discussions stemmed from the mass shooting in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
“This project is really geared toward the nonclinical world, promoting awareness and understanding and educating people who want to learn more about how they can help to reduce the stigma of mental illness,” Bohley explained. “We’re in the process now of completing the train the trainer protocol, but we’re looking forward to offering the program to various communities such as schools, public agencies, churches, and corporations.”
BHRP staff will also be focusing more on enhancing children’s mental health, an effort that Clinical Assistant Professor Lisa Lackmann is leading. Lackmann, ’89 MSW, is the former system of care coordinator for a program that managed public mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities for three area counties. Lackmann is currently collaborating with the state on ways to increase the use of community-based services to children with behavioral health challenges to give them a greater chance of staying in their homes and out of residential care.
“Lisa’s role is to assess the community services throughout the state, to assemble the data, and to make recommendations to state officials as they refocus on trainings and policies that emphasize community-based care,” Bohley said.
Down the road, BHRP might also consider projects for integrating mental health services into schools and primary care offices, Bohley added. Most children and adolescents with behavioral health challenges are never seen in specialty mental health services. By embedding clinicians in schools and doctors’ offices, many of which have already been clamoring for assistance, more children are served before behavioral health challenges become entrenched, Bohley explained.
“Offering behavioral health services in the places … where kids are naturally found makes sense in terms of increasing access, improving outcomes, and reducing costs,” she said. “So Lisa is very interested in the integrated care models and wants to do more work in that area.”
Each new initiative fits well with BHRP’s mission to bridge the gap between research, academic resources and clinicians in the field, Strom-Gottfried said. But they also complement the work of staff members who remain focused on training and study around substance abuse issues.
For example, Clinical Instructor Melissa Godwin has developed expertise around perinatal substance use and is currently working with the state on a project involving women who are pregnant, addicted to opioids or in recovery, and receiving medication-assisted treatment such as methadone or buprenorphine. Godwin is working with a statewide group to address how best to support pregnant women in: getting treatment, maintaining recovery and managing the initial physical dependence and withdrawal that may occur for newborns if they were exposed to opioids during pregnancy.
“Connecting, engaging and retaining pregnant women with comprehensive substance abuse treatment services that take into account her unique needs and experience as a woman leads to the best outcome for her and her baby,” Godwin explained. “Those needs include addressing typical barriers to treatment such as child care and transportation.”
Such research is proof of what BHRP has always done well, added Strom-Gottfried.
“This program is the go-to place for sound information and dissemination⎯whether it’s to the state division or directly to providers,” she said. “Clinicians know that the information they’re getting from us has been weighed and measured. There’s an examination of best practices, so whatever they’re getting, they know it’s up to date and that it’s sound. That’s also why it’s so great that BHRP is situated within the University. It really fits with our mission here.”
BHRP faculty members, including Worth Bolton and Ron Mangum, also continue to bring cutting-edge training into the practice field, she said. Bolton, a clinical assistant professor, is currently working on training for a new assessment project. The goal is to teach licensed clinical addiction specialists how to screen members of the military services to determine if those who have tested positive in a drug test need further treatment.
In addition to his field training in evidence-based practices, Bolton coordinates the Certificate in Substance Abuse Studies within the BHRP program. This popular program prepares social work students to work with individuals with addictions. Program graduates who complete one year of supervised practice are then qualified to receive the Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist Credential, which prepares them for work in any aspect of behavioral healthcare, Bolton added. Since the program began, 172 social workers have completed the requirements.
“Each year, we have programs calling interested in our graduating students,” he said.
For the last six years, Mangum, a clinical assistant professor and education specialist, has been managing the state’s Peer Support Specialist program. Peer Support trains recovering substance users and individuals recovering from mental illness to act as mentors and to support clients transitioning out of rehabilitation programs and back into the community. The program succeeds, he said, because of the “lived experiences” of each peer specialist. Currently, there are about 785 specialists who have been certified across North Carolina, including 41 military veterans.
“I don’t know what it’s like to live underneath a bridge. I don’t know what it’s like to live on the streets and to never know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t know what it’s like to be picked up by police and placed in handcuffs and placed in involuntary or voluntary care. But that peer support specialist does,” Mangum said. “And if you put that person with the lived experience on a team with people who are academically trained, it just enhances the chances for improved assistance for that client in need.”
Mangum, who will also be providing the Mental Health First Aid training, said he’s pleased to see BHRP expand its service to the community. “I really think we’re looking at how to enhance what we’re already doing but also how to increase our impact in the field of mental health and substance abuse in the state of North Carolina.”
That outreach, Strom-Gottfried concluded, will also involve widely marketing BHRP’s research connections and training expertise, especially to clinicians who might not always have the time to keep up with the latest evidence in the field.
“Think about how busy practitioners are,” she said. “But the ability to have sound information at your fingertips is enormous. So how do we make what we do now even better for folks? I’m really excited about the team we have, and the opportunities that are there.”