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Why We Have Hope in the Opioid Battle

Training Program led by UNLV addresses the shortage of professionals who are trained to recognize and treat individuals in need of care.

Business and Community  |  Sep 26, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
hydrocodone pills

(UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 


September is National Recovery Month, a time to increase understanding of substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover. This article, by former UNLV professor Ramona Denby-Brinson and Sara Hunt and Stephanie Borene of UNLV's The Lincy Institute, explains how one community coalition is helping.


Substance use and addictive disorders are not bound by economics, gender, ethnicity, geographic region, or even age. Substance use disorders are pervasive, impacting millions of individuals and depriving them of their ability to function physically, emotionally/psychologically, and financially.

The Problem

Two facts from a Southern Nevada Health District report are especially alarming. The mortality rate for opioid overdose in Clark County exceeded the national rate by almost 70 percent in 2012. Since 2008, opioid overdose has taken the lives of more Clark County residents each year than firearms and traffic accidents. The challenges inherent in addiction makes this health problem one of the most vexing issues that mental and behavioral health professionals face today.

Yet, even with Nevada’s high rates of substance abuse and the ever-increasing problem of overdose and the excessive use of prescription opioids, the state has a shortage of professionals who are trained to recognize and treat individuals in need of care.

The Goal

Three years ago, UNLV organized a broad coalition of community practitioners, educators, and university researchers, representing the myriad of health and human service professionals who tackle the issues of substance abuse and addictive disorders.

Their goal was to shore up the skills of Nevada’s mental and behavioral health workforce and equip students and professionals with the skills needed to screen for individuals suffering from addictions and refer them to treatment.

Leading the effort, known as the Southern Nevada Addictive Disorders Training Project, has been a team of researchers from UNLV’s The Lincy Institute: Ramona Denby-Brinson, Sara Hunt, Oscar Sida, Stephanie Borene, and Matt Gyger. Funding came through a grant called the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Student Training Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Approach

Using the evidence-based SBIRT approach, healthcare providers learn the importance and value of screening patients for alcohol, illicit drug, and prescription drug misuse even when the patient is not actively seeking help for a substance use problem. This public health approach helps identify those who are at-risk, as well as those who have a substance use disorder. After screening a patient for substance use, the provider gives feedback to the patient, provides a brief awareness-raising intervention (such as motivational interviewing), and if needed, refers the patient to specialized treatment for substance use.

The Result: Training Has Expanded Workforce

There is good news to report in the battle to prevent and treat substance abuse and addiction in Nevada. The project ultimately trained 1,395 students and practitioners in the SBIRT model.

The 761 student trainees — from UNLV, College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and Great Basin College — came from the fields of counseling, couple and family therapy, psychology, physical therapy, mental health law, dental medicine, pre-medicine, and EMS/paramedic. The 634 practitioners trained consisted of nurses, psychologists, counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, maternal and child health professionals, faith leaders, dental hygienists, public health professionals, school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors, Americorp members, and more.

The project has partnered with a local nonprofit organization, the PACT Coalition, to sustain the training. PACT will maintain the list of SBIRT trainers available to local organizations and providers. These trainers have attended a Train the Trainer session or have conducted SBIRT Training for the project in the past. They come from a variety of backgrounds including community health, marriage and family therapy, alcohol and drug counseling, faith-based organizations, criminal justice, nursing, and emergency medical services.

The Impact

Trainers have already been coordinating training for providers in the Southern Nevada HIV community, faith community, and UNLV School of Medicine. Clinics that have received the training say that the approach has raised awareness among clients about the potential dangers associated with alcohol and drug use, and helped clients thoughtfully consider entering into treatment.

Visit the Southern Nevada Addictive Disorders Training Project website for more information. To coordinate future training, email Novlette Mack, PACT Coalition.