Experiencing Substance Abuse and Improving the Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder

Oct 14, 2020

This episode focuses on substance abuse--a major mental health concern for Southeast Idahoans. A goal of MindTap is to share the lived experiences of people--since mental health struggles isn’t something that we often talk about. It is our hope at MindTap that we can contribute to normalizing conversations about mental health.

Christian Powell is an undergraduate student majoring in biological sciences at Idaho State University. Importantly, Christian is a fellow MindTap host who was willing to step onto the other side of the microphone and share his personal experiences with substance abuse.

“So it started with smoking weed and drinking and then there’s a random party that I was at. Someone sticks out their hand and offers me a little white pill. I didn’t think much about it. I just took it. After the fact, I started feeling the effects and I wanted to know what it was. I found out that it was just Vicodin, nothing serious.”

Christian shared with me that his drug use became more frequent after he injured his knee. This put him on crutches and he was let go from his job.

“I was out of work and I was just bored. I had two specific friends that would come over more than everyone else. And as they'd come over, they would bring hydrocodone, oxycodone and couple of times, one of these friends had gotten their hands on morphine,” Christian shared.

Hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine are drugs broadly referred to as opioids. These drugs bind to receptors in our brains and spinal cords where they block pain signals. During May 2020, I virtually met with Dr. Steve Lawyer, a professor in the Psychology Department at Idaho State University, and we talked about why opioid use can become very addictive.  

“When you and I take ibuprofen or aspirin, we don't get a sense of euphoria when we take that. That's one of the things that makes opiates really powerful is how rewarding they are,” Steve said, “And if you look at the way people behave with drugs, it looks exactly the way they behave with other kinds of reinforcers like food, water and what have you.”

Just like seeking out reliable sources of things we need to survive, an opioid addict’s life start to center around acquiring more of the drug.

“I remember some of the feelings of when my stash would start running down, Getting anxious and panicked because I only have a hundred milligrams of Oxy left. And so that'll maybe last me a day or two. And then what am I going to do?” Christian recalled.

With opioids being so addictive, Christian and I discussed how he was able to break his pattern of abuse with the help of his dog named Cheech.

“Cheech is a pit bull. He's three quarters pit and a quarter black lab, and he's got a huge head. Anytime he sees me or hears my voice, that tail is just wagging, knocking things over, knocking nieces over on occasion,” Christian said, “Cheech was also a big reason that I was able to stick with it once I did get sober. Because it was always in the back of my mind that it's either death or jail. And thinking about, if this happens to me, what's going to happen to him?”

Seeking help from mental health care providers is a way that Southeast Idahoans can be aided with their struggles with substance abuse. But it can be tough to find these resources in rural areas due to limited numbers of behavioral healthcare practitioners. I spoke with Dr. Steve Lawyer about the Idaho Rural Interdisciplinary Health Collaborative. Steve is the project director of this 1.1 million dollar grant aimed at improving the treatment of opioid use disorder here in Southeast Idaho.

“It's a project that's really designed with two things in mind. One is to train the next generation of clinical psychologists to work effectively in the context of interdisciplinary behavioral health care with a particular focus on opioid use disorder,” Steve said, “And the other part of the grant is to promote behavioral health and opioid use disorder treatments in Southeast Idaho.”

So far, seven graduate students in the doctoral program in clinical psychology have been involved in the training component of the grant. 

“All of these students on the project received the same training for medically assisted treatment for opioid use disorder that physicians receive,” Steve explained, “And so we're really trying to teach our folks to work effectively from a holistic perspective where they understand the medicine which makes them more effective on the behavioral side.”

Steve and I discussed how the grant is also aimed at strengthening existing telehealth infrastructure and creating it at sites where it was not yet available. Telehealth allows patients to speak with caregivers over the internet without having to physically drive to a clinic.

Overcoming substance abuse is a journey that can be aided by seeking the help of health professionals and now, Southeast Idahoans have the ability to talk to mental health care providers from home! If you are a student at Idaho State University you can access telehealth services through Counseling and Testing. You can also ask mental health professionals if they offer telehealth services.