During a Vibrant Virginia book webinar focusing on the addiction crisis, panelists discussed the importance of a coordinated, comprehensive approach to substance use prevention and treatment. The online event featured Vibrant Virginia book authors Mary Beth Dunkenberger and Sophie Wenzel, and Executive Director of the Virginia Rural Health Association, Beth O’Connor.

A Q & A portion allowed audience members to ask questions about the chapter and the opioid crisis in Virginia.

Dunkenberger and Wenzel’s chapter, titled “Supporting Rural and Urban Communities Through Boundary Spanning Actions: Responding to the Addiction Crisis Through University and Community Collaborations,” focuses on their research and engagement efforts in two Virginia counties, Pulaski, a largely rural community, and Roanoke City, an urban community.

Working with the Pulaski Community Partners Coalition, Dunkenberger and Wenzel held a series of listening sessions, focus groups, and interviews with coalition members, community members, and people in recovery.

Individuals talked about the impact of substance use in families and the need for trauma-informed care for children in kinship or foster care as well as the need for more advocacy to reduce stigma.

“There’s still so much stigma around substance use, and there’s a perception that it’s not a disease so much as a moral failing. The stigma is seen as a barrier to resource allocation and policy development, and needs to be addressed,” said Wenzel.

Peer recovery specialists were seen very positively, as a step to increase more access to treatment and reduce the stigma. Participants in the sessions also mentioned valuable resources such as an active drug court in Pulaski County, self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and the New River Valley Community Services Board services.

Dunkenberger and Wenzel’s research and engagement was examined through the lens of  boundary spanning, which has increasingly been utilized to better understand how individual actors and organizations can work together to address complex and persistent social problems.

“Boundary spanning provides a valuable lens to examine how multi-sector collaborative efforts, including university resources and expertise, can be utilized to support increased vitality in our communities,” said Dunkenberger.

The Virginia Tech team also engaged with The Roanoke Valley Collective, whose work meets many critical tenants of boundary spanning. The Roanoke Valley Collective is a cross-sector coalition of first responders, healthcare agencies, local and state government agencies, educational entities, community non-profits, faith and business communities, and individuals and families personally touched by addiction.

In September 2020, the Roanoke Collective released the Blueprint to Action, a community-driven plan to abate the opioid and addiction crisis in the Roanoke Valley.

Virginia Tech’s work with the Roanoke Collective resulted in a grant award by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that supports harm reduction efforts in the Roanoke Valley.

The themes of navigating trauma and reducing stigma were shared between Roanoke and Pulaski, but there were differences between the two areas, including volunteer fatigue in Pulaski.

“There are limited resources to get things done in rural areas,” said Wenzel. “Coalition members are strained. They take on many roles in the community.”

Urban areas such as Roanoke have greater access to a wider array of services, have more transportation, and have more momentum due to the number of participants and resources.

“Another capacity limitation is the ability of small non-profits to go after the funds that are available, due to limited staff and time,” said O’Connor.

“Another big barrier that our partners are running into is the difficulty in employing people to be peer recovery specialists. We know that being able to walk through your recovery with someone who’s ‘been there, done that’ is effective,” said O’Connor. However, regulations in Virginia prohibit community service boards from hiring people with criminal records, which many people in recovery have.

There can also be some benefits to addressing public health issues in small-town America, when you have a strong community stakeholder as a partner, O’Connor said. “It’s easier to know who all the players are and you likely have tighter connections with key people in the community, such as the sheriff or town manager.”

“There’s a need in the New River Valley for a higher-level collaboration. I would love to see a comprehensive partnership with law enforcement, the drug courts, the community services board, the health department, and the community health center, tackling this issue from a systems-level perspective,” said Wenzel.

View the full webinar here.