TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The University of Alabama School of Social Work and the Alabama Department of Mental Health have partnered on an $8 million project to expand a substance abuse and mental health program to underserved areas of West Alabama.
The program will incorporate alcohol and drug screenings, brief interventions and referral to treatment into primary care settings to address the need for integrated substance use disorder prevention. The program, known as AL-SBIRT, will span five years and is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that has helped implement similar programs in other states.
“Alabama has the opportunity to implement this approach, which has been adopted as a best practice in other states, to identify and serve clients with or at risk for substance use problems and co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety, depression or trauma,” said Dr. David L. Albright, associate professor of social work and principal investigator of the project. “Having behavioral health care integrated within primary care settings will benefit thousands of Alabamians and also bolster our behavioral health workforce, which is one of the fastest growing workforces in the country.”
UA’s School of Social Work will also partner with the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, Whatley Health Services and the Capstone Rural Health Center to help administer the new integrated services program. Whatley and the Capstone Rural Health Center are both Federally Qualified Health Centers – a designation for health-care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. ADMH -certified substance abuse and mental health providers who provide services to the West Alabama area are also major partners.
About 4.5 percent of adults in Alabama reported having a serious mental health disorder, and nearly 58 percent reported not receiving treatment, according to a 2013 report by SAMHSA. The report also found that the number of uninsured adults in the state who have a serious mental health disorder, serious psychological distress or a substance use disorder are higher than national averages.
The program’s three goals are to increase access to SBIRT for adults in primary care settings; to ensure SBIRT as the standard of care in Alabama’s healthcare settings; and to improve health and behavioral health outcomes among adults, including veterans who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder and a co-occurring mental health disorder.
“This treatment program has been highly effective in connecting those who need help with substance abuse to treatment strategies to meet their needs,” said James Perdue, ADMH commissioner. “This program saves lives, saves money and can reduce the significant burden our drug problem places on families, health care and the criminal justice systems.”
SBIRT administrators hope to lessen the number of Alabamians who go untreated and to serve those who are at risk. SBIRT uses motivational interviewing to do quick assessments for use severity of illicit and prescription drugs and alcohol. Those who are in need of substance abuse or mental health specialty care will be referred to programs certified by the ADMH. Although SBIRT will be integrated into existing workflows at health care centers, how it’s integrated at each center will differ. AL-SBIRT will begin taking referrals in October. Program coordinators expect to pre-screen nearly 89,000 Alabamians, with roughly 26,000 receiving a full assessment and a brief intervention.
“The state of Alabama is uniquely poised to administer this large grant due to our inter-organizational collaborative nature and profound need,” said Dr. Vikki Vandiver, dean of the UA School of Social Work. “This grant represents the best of town-and-gown initiatives, and the School of Social Work is particularly honored to partner with such a dedicated array of academic, state and community agencies and organizations. We believe our work together will have a positive impact on the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable individuals, families and communities.”
Albright said project funds will be used to support building capacities at health-care centers in West Alabama and to train students to have more internship opportunities in the new integrated health settings.
“There is a real need to bolster behavioral health workforce in the state,” Albright said. “The School of Social Work is prepared to be a leader in addressing that need. A primary issue contributing to the health-care crisis in West Alabama and the Black Belt region is a lack of resources, including a critical shortage of clinically trained people like social workers, which is below both regional and national averages. The school has a nationally recognized and leading master’s program, and the school’s potential to train individuals to return to these communities will have a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands.”
The UA AL-SBIRT team consists of Drs. Javonda Williams, Kevin Corcoran, Karl Hamner and Allison Curington of the School of Social Work; Dr. Michael Lawson of the UA College of Education; and Dr. Tom English of the Culverhouse College of Commerce.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.