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Faith-Based Outreach Program Addresses Opioid and Stimulant Use Disorders in Maryland, Reaches Thousands

 

A collaborative effort between Opioid Response Network (ORN) partner organization the American Heart Association and the Central Maryland Area Health Education Center is building momentum and reaching thousands across faith-based communities in the Baltimore, MD area.

The ORN-funded initiative is providing community level education focused on health literacy and eliminating health disparities to help stem an increase in opioid and stimulant use disorders seen in African American and Hispanic populations.

National studies show that racial bias among medical professionals can lead to discriminatory practices in prescribing opioids and treating pain in African American and Hispanic communities, which can lead to adverse outcomes, including overdose death. Data reveals that African Americans have experienced the largest percentage increase in drug overdose death rates involving opioids since 2015.

“In our pilot project, we looked at ten communities in the Baltimore area most impacted by overdose and death and began outreach efforts to faith-based leaders we have connections with to ask if they wanted to work together on an awareness-, prevention- and treatment-focused education program. The response was immediate and affirmative,” said Paula Blackwell MBA, MHA, Executive Director, Central Maryland Area Health Education Center. “Almost all had stories of overdose or death within their congregation, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic and within elderly populations.”

Blackwell and her team coordinated a series of trainings providing community level education on opioid use disorder awareness, prevention, local treatment resources, mutual support programs, harm reduction and Narcan®. To start, the trainers worked with pastors and other leaders to build capacity before moving into training sessions for the congregations. Given stigma associated with substance use disorders and misunderstandings about the disease, education sessions were coordinated alongside events like CPR trainings to activate community members who might not have been as willing to participate in a stand-alone session.

“The response from the community has been incredible and the aftereffects exactly what we hoped for,” said Blackwell. What’s next? In the Baltimore area, the churches involved have started connecting with other local resources such as mobile harm reduction teams in an effort to increase access to and continue to improve services within their communities.

“The success of the pilot project has allowed the American Heart Association to continue this critical work within communities, and we hope it will have a long-lasting and positive impact. We are hoping that the program creates space for folks to have open and honest conversations about substance use that is free of judgement and allows an opportunity for everyone to learn. Breaking the stigma surrounding addiction starts with one conversation at a time,” said Jazmine Alcon, Project Coordinator, American Heart Association.

The American Heart Association and Opioid Response Network plan to replicate the series in other faith-based communities across the U.S. and territories. A Spanish language series is currently being planned for Puerto Rico.

If you are interested in creating a similar program, contact the Opioid Response Network at orn@aaap.org or make a request directly at www.OpioidResponseNetwork.org. All support provided by the Opioid Response Network is at no cost through grant funding awarded to the network by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.