Pitt Task Force Outlines Framework for Confronting Nationwide Opioid Crisis

A new University of Pittsburgh report outlines a framework for Pitt and other higher education institutions to address the growing national opioid crisis.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher tasked Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson with forming the Opioid Abuse Prevention and Recovery Task Force in February to find ways to strengthen and build upon Pitt’s foundation of prevention, treatment and recovery programs and to bring meaningful and beneficial change to the lives of students.

Student resources

Pitt undergraduate or graduate students looking for support in recovery from drugs and/or alcohol can find information through the Panthers for Recovery program. 

Health services information for students also can be found at campus-specific websites: Pittsburgh, Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, Titusville.

“The data are clear: The nation’s opioid epidemic hits young adults at a higher rate than any other age group,” Gallagher said. “While opioid abuse is lower on university campuses, we can’t be complacent. The working group’s recommendations give us an action plan that represents one of the most comprehensive approaches anywhere for addressing opioid use and abuse in a college environment. It’s an important issue — and one where the University of Pittsburgh is now taking a leading role.”

The task force has issued a 48-page report, Opioid Use Disorder: Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery, that contains more than two dozen recommendations, many of which are already underway, for Pitt’s campuses across areas including screening and assessment, prevention through education, public safety, treatment, recovery, and monitoring and measuring.

“The task force consisted of hard-working, accomplished people who brought a range of perspectives and high levels of commitment to our work,” said Chancellor Emeritus and Chair of Pitt’s Institute of Politics Mark Nordenberg, who chaired the task force. “All of us were impressed with efforts already underway in student life, student health and public safety on all of our campuses. We think that there are ways to build on that foundation to make Pitt a clear best practices institution in this important area.”

Mark Nordenberg in suit and tie at podium speakingPitt’s faculty expertise, its close relationship with UPMC and UPMC Health Plan and the willingness of its students to be involved in making change are distinct advantages for addressing challenges posed by this public health crisis, the task force found. Task force members also hope that these recommendations are used by other higher education institutions as a road map to strengthen their own recovery support systems.

“This task force has recognized that our university is not immune to this local and national crisis,” said Antoine Douaihy, senior academic director of addiction medicine services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC and professor of psychiatry and medicine. “And the report shows that through Pitt and UPMC’s collaborative partnership we can improve prevention, treatment and recovery efforts to create a healthier university community.”

The task force included experts from Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, Division of Student Affairs, UPMC, campus security, regional campuses and two Pitt students. Also on the task force is Christine Henney, who lost her son, Pitt chemistry student Raymond J. “R.J.” Henney IV, to addiction in April 2016.

“Pitt recognizes the influence a parent can have on a child who is struggling, and so it’s important for parents to know what support services are available on campus,” Henney said. “There is a support system on campus today, but we, the task force, want to take it up a notch. For a struggling student, a recovery support system can make all the difference in the world.

“The opioid epidemic is a huge problem across the country; it didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to go away overnight,” Henney said. “But education and awareness will be key to reducing the problem on college campuses everywhere.”

It's an important issue — and one where the University of Pittsburgh is now taking a leading role. 

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher

According to an alcohol and drug survey done by Pitt in 2016, 0.9 percent of Pitt’s roughly 30,000 students reported having used opioids in the previous year and 0.5 percent reported having used opioids in the previous 30 days. Campus police reports are consistent, showing that opioid-related law enforcement interactions on Pitt’s five campuses have been rare and almost always have involved individuals who are neither University students nor University employees, according to the report.

“Given the attributes of college and university students, there is good reason to believe that our students may also be more receptive to prevention programs grounded in evidence-based educational approaches,” the task force report states. “However, most experts believe the self-reported data underestimates the true prevalence of students misusing opioids due to stigma attached to opioid use.”

The American College Health Association felt strong enough concern to issue guidelines in 2016 on opioid prescribing in college health settings.

Nordenberg said even a low percentage of opioid use, when applied to a large student body, produces a troubling number of students who may be at risk of suffering what can be the life-ending consequences of severe opioid use disorder.

Next steps

Beginning in the fall 2018 term, Pitt will conduct a University-wide climate survey on alcohol and drug use to gain a better sense of how many students may be struggling with addiction.

A number of University employees, including members of the staff of the University’s Wellness Center, already have received Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment training — a practice used to identify, reduce and prevent unhealthy drug and alcohol use. The University plans to inventory other positions that would benefit from such training and begin providing that training by spring 2019 term.

Additional action items include the following:

  • Offering training to graduate and professional students through orientation programs and classes to facilitate increased engagement and support on the topic of substance misuse including opioids, prescription misuse, addiction and recovery.
  • Creating programs and workshops that faculty members can request for classes that address topics related to opioid misuse and risks.
  • Having naloxone, a drug administered to reverse a narcotic overdose, readily available for use by Pitt Police Department and the Student Health Service across all campuses and offering training, at least annually, on administering naloxone.
  • Ensuring the appropriate employees receive the training needed to better assess and manage students with opioid and other substance use disorders. 
  • Exploring recovery housing options.

Efforts underway

Pitt currently provides incoming student education, campuswide programming coordinated through PantherWELL Peer Health Educators, the Collegiate Recovery Program and clinic and pharmacy services to emphasize the practice of “Talk Before You Take,” which helps students understand medications.

The Pittsburgh campus has hosted drug take back events that have netted an average of 268 pounds of drugs during each take back day since 2015. Through the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Network program, a permanent collection box has been placed in the lobby of the Public Safety Building, and another will be located in the Student Pharmacy before the start of the fall 2018 term.

Pitt campuses in Bradford, Johnstown, Greensburg and Titusville partner with local police departments on drug take back efforts.

The Pittsburgh campus also hosts the Centralized Reverse Distributor program that allows researchers to dispose of unused or excess controlled substances, in compliance with Drug Enforcement Administration licensing requirements, at no charge.

Students also are required to attend the Tipping Point and Bystander Education Training as part of orientation week. The Tipping Point explores mental health, sexual assault, substance use, policies, conduct and campus safety. Bystander Education Training focuses on training students to recognize how to identify and effectively intervene in situations where someone’s health or safety may be at risk.