Substance Use Research Beyond Classroom Walls

February 22, 2019

Amanda Hawthorne was a College Health Corps VISTA at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth, working on opioid prevention and intervention efforts. Some of Amanda’s projects included conducting focus groups with the Community Health Needs Assessment for St. Louis County, supporting naloxone programming for increased access, and creating homelessness interventions in partnership with Carlton County Public Health and Human Services. She recently wrapped up her service term and shares some reflections from her year.



“This was great,” said the grizzled man with a wide smile. “You know, we don’t get to do this often. Just hang out with each other, shoot the bull.”

Our new friend had just participated in a focus group facilitated by my supervisor and me. For the past five months, he has been in recovery from a substance use disorder, a highly isolating and difficult process as those in recovery try to reform their social networks while securing stable housing and employment, attending therapy and group meetings, and learning cognitive and behavior skills to battle the mental side of addiction. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin—no wonder it’s a relief to talk about it now and then.

As a part of my VISTA project at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth, I got to perform substance use research beyond classroom walls. Through supervisor Dr. Laura Palombi’s community-engaged work, I traveled across the region helping develop trainings in naloxone (the opioid overdose reversal drug), as well as community coalition meetings and, my favorite, focus groups.

For participants in recovery, focus groups offered an opportunity to socialize with sober peers and to tell their stories in a world that often wants them to remain silent. For me, they served to remind me time and time again of the importance of this work. Behind every naloxone kit dispensed is a human life potentially saved, a second chance, and countless friends and family members who get to help their loved one another day.

Some believe that those struggling with a substance use disorder aren’t worth helping, but they’d think differently if they met any of our focus group participants. They’d meet folks who are kind, witty, thoughtful, and not so very different from folks in our own circles.

For these focus groups, we didn’t just sit around and “shoot the bull” all day. Participants’ feedback has informed broader community and coalition efforts. My supervisor and I, along with other collaborators, are also compiling results from ten of our focus groups across northeast Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to assess the primary supports and barriers to recovery in rural mining communities.

Among the foremost barriers are a lack of treatment and mental health resources, isolation, landlords and employers not willing to offer someone a second chance, and stigma. The latter is something we can all help with, by recognizing the fortunate circumstances that lead to our own health—and how things may not have worked out so well for others. We can listen to and tell stories of strength in recovery. Ultimately, these stories matter.

“Yeah, we should do this again. We could organize something,” chimed in another focus group participant, a college student. Conversing, joking, and already planning another session to talk and vent with one another, everyone gathered up their things and left the room, leaving my supervisor and me behind. Long after they turned the corner, their laughter echoed far down the hallway.

These stories matter. And so does every life.

Check out the naloxone resource and community websites Amanda’s work was able to support.

For more information on this project, please contact Laura Palombi, Pharm.D., MPH, MAT at lpalombi {at} d.umn(.)edu.