University's new Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking, and Health looks to help vulnerable populations

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 6:37pm

The DASH center will hone in on substance use and the wider reaching social issues associated with it.

The DASH center will hone in on substance use and the wider reaching social issues associated with it. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Kathryn Wright

In January, the University of Michigan opened the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking, and Health, affiliated with the School of Nursing. Carol Boyd, a Deborah J. Oakley Collegiate professor in the Nursing School, and Sean Esteban McCabe, former director of the Substance Abuse Research Center, co-direct the new center, which increased its public persona when its website went live last week.

The University already has multiple research centers that explore addiction and substance use and abuse, including the Addiction Center, housed in the Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry, and the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network. The DASH center, however, will hone in on substance use and the wider reaching social issues associated with it. Specifically, the center’s researchers share an interest in at-risk populations such as racial minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community.

After the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center closed in 2016, there was a need for a new interdisciplinary center for substance use research. Boyd then conceptualized the DASH center.

In particular, Boyd said she is interested in the intersections between drug misuse and minority populations and believes that the center can work toward mitigating these issues.

“Sexual, ethnic and gender minorities, adolescents, pregnant women, veterans and the elderly are at highest risk for the negative consequences of substance use, including HIV, injury, birth defects, suicide, cancer, and liver disease,” she wrote in an email interview. “These at-risk populations are the primary focus of the DASH Center scholars; we are faculty committed to advancing knowledge of substance use and its consequences through pioneering scholarship, evidence-based prevention, innovative clinical training and timely public policy and service.”

Stephen Strobbe, a clinical associate professor at the Nursing School, is a researcher affiliated with DASH. He said his interest lies in integrating substance use screening and youth psychiatric care. Strobbe is working on a clinical initiative supported by a grant from the Flinn Foundation to educate and train clinicians in adolescent psychiatric care.

“The plan is to train members, across disciplines from the entire clinical team … toward youth ages 14 to 18 who are receiving inpatient psychiatric care,” he wrote in an email interview.  “Across the lifespan, individuals with mental health disorders are at markedly increased risk for lifetime and concurrent substance use and related disorders, which otherwise complicates care, and leads to poorer treatment outcomes. Our hope is that earlier identification, intervention, and treatment may help to reduce or eliminate some (of) these potentially avoidable complications, leading to improved outcomes.”

Strobbe emphasized the DASH center is a good place for this initiative to happen.

“The DASH initiative allows for robust collaboration across disciplines to better address issues related to social determinants, risk factors, clinical care, and recovery,” he wrote.

Yasamin Kusunoki, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems, Populations and Leadership, works for the new DASH center. Kusunoki explains why taking an interdisciplinary look at health and substance use is crucial.

“It is important to have a variety of voices at the table in order to most effectively and creatively address these issues,” she wrote in an email interview. “Individuals are embedded in multiple interdependent social contexts, such as their intimate relationships, families, and communities, that have both short-term and long-term consequences for their health. Therefore, it is important that researchers continue to investigate the connection between social factors and health.”

Similarly, the Addiction Center conducts multidisciplinary research on vulnerable populations such as adolescents, pregnant women, older adults and veterans.

Angela Galka, an assistant to the director of the Addiction Center, outlined one of the Addiction Center’s major goals: Examining root causes of substance misuse.

“Specifically, one of our major research themes focuses on the identification of genetic, neuropsychological, and psychosocial factors that contribute to alcohol and drug use and/or disorders,” Galka said.

Boyd explained DASH offers a new perspective as a center because of its unique combination of faculty members. Boyd herself is also a professor of Women’s Studies.  

“As a director of DASH faculty I bring together faculty that focus on vulnerable populations such as sexual minorities and youth,” she wrote.

DASH is working toward its three-year goals: Establishing strong connections with researchers who share in their mission and establishing a mentorship program in the Nursing School. The mentees would consist of undergraduates, graduates, post-doctorates and faculty interested in becoming scholars of substance use.

As Boyd looks further into the future, she envisions greater training in the field.

“The long-term goal is to increase the number of substance use scholars who are also nurses, and to build a critical mass of substance use scholars in schools of nursing,” she wrote.