UC Riverside researcher awarded NIH grants to study mental health and opioid use

Andrew Subica will focus his research on marginalized US populations

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Credit: UCR School of Medicine.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Grants from the National Institutes of Health to the University of California, Riverside, will support research on mental health and opioid use.

Boosting mental health treatment

Andrew M. Subica, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population, and Public Health in the School of Medicine, has been awarded a three-year intervention development grant of $723,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, to design and pilot test a novel culturally tailored intervention to increase Pacific Islanders’ use of mental health treatment.

Previously, Subica performed an exploratory study funded by the NIMH that found the levels of depression, anxiety, alcohol use disorder, as well as the need for treatment were extraordinarily high in Pacific Islander communities. The study also confirmed that members of these communities typically will not seek treatment to address these needs.

With the new NIMH grant, Subica will use the data collected on Pacific Islanders’ mental health needs and barriers to treatment to create the novel intervention from existing evidence-based practices.

“We are calling our intervention ‘Talking Story,'” Subica said. “Pacific Islanders, who are innate storytellers, reported in our earlier study that an effective mental health treatment-seeking intervention should use stories to convey important information about mental health treatment rather than lectures, presentations, or even testimonials. As a result, this new project will hire Pacific Islander actors to create brief narrative films of different scenarios that address Pacific Islanders’ stigma, limited knowledge of the treatment process, and warranted cultural mistrust of Western treatment services.”

The project, titled “Engaging Pacific Islanders in Mental Health Treatment Services,” will be conducted in partnership with the Office of Samoan Affairs and Motivation Action Leadership Opportunity; Bruce Link at the UCR School of Public Policy; Nia Aitaoto at the University of Utah; Scott Okamoto at the Hawaii Pacific University; Sheila Murphy at the University of Southern California; Erin Kelly at Thomas Jefferson University; and Matthew Yamashita at Quazifilms.

Studying opioid use

Subica was also awarded a three-year, $727,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, for a project titled “Engaging Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in opioid use disorder treatment.”

“Next to COVID-19, the opioid overdose epidemic is the biggest public health crisis affecting the U.S. since HIV/AIDS, with 48,000 people dying per year from opioid overdose,” Subica said. “No research has sought to understand or address opioid use disorders in Pacific Islander populations — a research and clinical gap this three-year intervention development grant will seek to address.”

Subica said he decided to pursue this research because Pacific Islanders have nearly every major risk factor for opioid use disorders compared to other U.S. racial groups, including extremely high rates of mental health and substance use disorders — the strongest predictor of opioid use disorders.

“Our study will explore the scope of the opioid issue among Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and Tongans in Utah to design a culturally tailored intervention to engage Pacific Islanders with opioid use disorders in treatment,” Subica said. “People with opioid use disorders are at very high risk for death from overdose. It is thus a public health priority to intervene before Pacific Islanders overdose on opioids. We will create the intervention and pilot-test it, our goal being randomized controlled trials of this intervention in future studies.”

Subica and his team will also seek to gain new data on methamphetamine use in Pacific Islander communities.

“Methamphetamine abuse, which is extremely high among Pacific Islanders, is the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in nearly all states where substantial Pacific Islander populations reside,” Subica said. “This study will ideally gain information about the drugs most closely linked to the risk of overdose and death in Pacific Islanders.”

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Subica’s research partners include Dr. Li-Tzy Wu at Duke University School of Medicine; Dr. Scott Okamoto at Hawaii Pacific University; Dr. Nia Aitaoto at University of Utah; and Drs. Howard Moss and Esra Kurum at UCR.

Research reported here was supported by NIMH and NIDA of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers R34MH122641 and R34DA049989, respectively. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The University of California, Riverside (http://www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California’s diverse culture, UCR’s enrollment is more than 24,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of almost $2 billion. To learn more, email [email protected]

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