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Master of Social Work students on the IUB campus are gaining valuable real-life experience as they assist a rural county examine ways to deal with addiction problems plaguing so many communities across the state and nation.

Their effort comes as part of an Indiana University initiative, Sustaining Hoosier Communities. Stakeholders in Lawrence County identified a number of projects they needed help with and faculty responded to the ones that fit their expertise. Among the issues the community wanted to investigate was mental health and addiction needs.

Dr. John Keesler, who lives in Bedford, the county seat for Lawrence County, met with the Lawrence County Sheriff in August to find out more about what the community hoped to accomplish. The sheriff explained the community wanted two things: a survey of attitudes and knowledge about mental health and addictions and information about types of integrated treatment models dealing with the complexities of mental health and substance use, particularly for rural communities.

“That really fit with the focus of our Master of Social Work program at IUB, which is mental health and addictions,” Keesler noted. He also realized that Dr. Kristin Hamre, a colleague in the social work program, would be a perfect partner to collaborate with. “I am teaching research methods. I thought I have to develop this course anyway, so let’s go ahead and integrate this into the class I am working on. It makes sense for Kristen to take on the other piece on effective treatment models because she is teaching the policy class.”

“From a coursework perspective it was exciting to us,” Hamre said. Students come into the program with a clinical bent. That’s why they are getting a MSW degree and it can be challenging to get students interested in the more macro aspects of social work, she explained. Keesler and Hamre have the same cohort of students, about 14, and the classes are back to back on the same day. The instructors have tried to present a united approach to this so it is unique in some ways that policy and research are collaborating.

“I think students sometimes come in feeling intimidated about research and policy work or feel they don’t have the skills or interacted with it before, Hamre said. So we were excited about offering real projects in our class that would give them experiential learning and demystify the process and let them get their hands in there and start doing the work.”

Hopefully, the students will feel empowered to do that kind of work when they are in the field. whether utilizing research to inform their practice, doing research to make their practice better and engaging in advocacy, gaining tools to help their community and agencies they are in and conduct policy analysis-type work to improve community and agencies. “It's exciting to show them they have more skills than they think they have to do it, but also to nurture and develop these skills.”

This is a real project, helping a community, Keesler noted.  “This community came to IU  identifying real needs. This community, like many rural communities is really affected by the opioid epidemic and not just opioids, he added. The community is also concerned about amphetamines and alcohol abuse.

As for the survey, the idea is to gain a better understanding of where the community is concerning attitudes and understandings about mental health and addiction. In order to create sustainable projects, they need to understand where the community is at to get the community by in. The information from the survey can be used to promote education and to understand whether or not the community will support initiatives they want to move forward with.”  The data can also be used to support grant funding as the community, like many rural communities, is hard pressed, for resources.

“The survey will help understand community attitudes, which is so important moving forward with potential policies and programs to understand what the community would be supportive of,” Hamre noted.

After interviews with the stakeholders, Keesler identified key themes and then had the students break into groups and create survey items based off those themes.  The students have been looking at the literature to better understand how previous research has looked at mental health and substance use in rural communities. “Not only are they learning about research from a textbook, they are learning from the literature, the published research that’s been done and taking that and applying it with the themes from the community to develop the survey items,” Keesler said. The survey will be given back to the stakeholders to get their input on the instrument before sending it out.

Hamre pointed out the project will by no means solve the opioid problem in or for Lawrence County.  What it can do is have the students look at what integrated models work in other communities and provide that information to the Lawrence County stakeholders who don’t have the resources or the time to gather that information. While the community has limited resources, they have strengths too, she said. “They have a whole lot of people there who are ready to do the work.”

“It is exciting to really help these stakeholders by providing information they can use.”