Tackling Substance Misuse with Data Mapping

Six Healthy Places NC counties have identified substance misuse as a critical health issue in their communities. To support counties as they work toward the goal of reduced rates of substance misuse and overdose deaths, specifically among Medicaid and uninsured populations, the Trust is investing in strategies that include community-based research that engages residents in the process of data collection and planning, systems change approaches that arise from the community planning process, and evidence-informed and evidence-based approaches to prevent substance misuse among vulnerable populations.

Project Momentum, Inc. and the North Carolina Institute for Public Health (NCIPH) collect data about substance misuse and overdose deaths in the Twin Counties and McDowell County, respectively to provide holistic, big-picture findings and data to assist with the communities’ efforts.

 The Trust has heard from communities that they don’t have enough data about access, gaps in services, and root causes. Research efforts like those led by Project Momentum, Inc. and NCIPH help to provide communities with the information they need to develop a plan to combat substance misuse in their counties. By providing this evidence, Project Momentum, Inc. and NCIPH are carving out space to educate and help the healing process at the community level.

In recent years, stakeholders in North Carolina have spent considerable time and energy crafting recommendations to confront the complex issues of behavioral health and substance use at the state level. A lack of treatment capacity, high uninsured rates in some sections of the population, and rising opioid overdose deaths prompted the creation of these plans.

Like many parts of the state, rural Healthy Places North Carolina communities are struggling to reduce rates of addiction to harmful substances and to decrease or eliminate overdose deaths.

Led by executive director Mysha Wynn, Project Momentum, Inc., is a community-focused non-profit based in Rocky Mount that provides substance abuse assessments and resources to individuals dealing with substance abuse and dependency. From her clients, Wynn has learned about the complex individual, interpersonal, and community factors that contribute to substance misuse and sobriety behaviors in Edgecombe and Nash Counties. Project Momentum, Inc. is partnering with the Twin Counties Partnership for Healthier Communities, and a consulting firm, Lenell and Lillie, LLC. to gather data to create widespread awareness of substance abuse and misuse at the community level, beyond just rates and percentages.

“To effectively implement treatment and interventions that will create behavior change, you have to know the needs of the individuals as well as those of the community,” said Wynn.

Wynn and her team hope to bring together members of the community–stakeholders, civic leaders, as well as individuals in treatment and their families–to get to the root causes of substance abuse and misuse in the Twin Counties and inform potential community interventions.

“By grounding our work in life course and systems perspectives, we are able to confront the root causes behind substance abuse and misuse,” said Wynn. “We’re in a planning period where we’re trying to understand the gaps in existing data, fill the gaps, and present the data to the community–to help us develop solutions to address the gaps that we find.”

In McDowell County, the NCIPH team, housed in the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, partners with the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness at UNC-Asheville (NCCHW) to build upon the extensive work already happening in the community. By providing technical support to the McDowell County Substance Misuse Workgroup, including the annual Recovery Rally, NCIPH and NCCHW are an integral part of McDowell County’s substance misuse work. They identify limitations in access to care in McDowell County through building upon systems mapping and support continual improvement through the Community Health Assessment process. Additionally, they are compiling a resource guide for treatment and recovery options in the surrounding area.

“We’re lifting up passionate voices in the community so they can be heard,” said Emma Olson, a researcher with NCCHW, who works with NCIPH in McDowell County. “One powerful factor [in McDowell] is the compassion extended by the leaders and stakeholders–they are very dedicated to addressing trauma and building resilience in our community.”

Project Momentum, Inc. and NCIPH will work on these data-mapping projects over the next three years. Both organizations are laser-focused on giving back to the communities they work in by imparting sustainable tools for systems change.

“The objective here is to ‘work ourselves out of a job’,” said Olson. “If we can align the systems already at work in the community, the community can use shared compassion to break down the stigma.”