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Federal Grant Funds Mizzou Internships To Treat Addiction In Underserved Areas

Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Opioid-related overdoses killed an estimated 1,635 Missourians in 2018, according to preliminary numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctoral students in psychology at the University of Missouri will be able to learn how to better treat and prevent addiction thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the federal government.

The funds from the Department of Health and Human Services will pay for 21 new psychology internships in areas that lack health services, more than doubling the department’s current positions.

“This will enable us to give them a little something extra,” said Laura Schopp, chair of the university’s health psychology department. “Any psychologist who is dealing with these chronic health conditions is going to come up against substance use disorders and, particularly, opioid use disorders.”

Doctoral psychology students complete internships in the year before they graduate and begin their careers, similar to a residency for a physician. The department will add three internships this year and seven more in both 2020 and 2021.

Trainees will be placed in community-based health centers in rural and urban regions with few medical options, Schopp said. The interns will receive additional training in how to identify potential health problems that could lead to substance use as well as how to treat existing addiction issues through therapy sessions and assessments.

Psychologists are important not only in treating substance use disorder but in preventing it, she said. They often treat chronic conditions such as insomnia, anxiety and pain that when left untreated can lead to addiction.

“What we hope to do is get in front of that by treating those conditions well and giving people behavioral support on the front end, so they don’t go on to develop opioid use disorder,” said Schopp, a psychology professor at Mizzou. “Psychologists have a unique role to play in that we do a great job in pain management, we do a great job at behavioral health change.”

Treatment is often concentrated in urban areas, said Jane Pfefferkorn, a board member of the Missouri Recovery Network, a statewide advocacy organization. Practices in rural areas can lag behind more up-to-date treatment.

The current focus on medication-assisted treatment is good for patients, said Pfefferkorn, also executive director of Mission Missouri, a treatment center in Sikeston. But psychologists and counselors offer crucial support to help people remain in recovery.

“When we have seen people really excel in the recovery and really get their lives and the things they want to accomplish with their lives, it’s because they’ve had a holistic approach,” she said.

Interns will also offer telehealth services to urban underserved areas.

Department heads hope to recruit interns who have a continued interest in working in urban and rural areas with few medical options, Schopp said, adding that many graduates end up working in high-need areas.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.