Temple University researchers are exploring new ways to treat minority patients who suffer from both mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.
The team of researchers received $1.3 million in grant funding from Pennsylvania’s share of the national tobacco settlement for a four-year research project beginning March 1, according to Associate Professor of Psychiatry Ralph Spiga.
The joint team includes professors from the university’s departments of Psychiatry and Urban Studies, as well as researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle University.
Spiga, who is the project’s principal investigator, said that the main goal of the research was to determine if effective treatments for either mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders could be combined to effectively treat minority patients suffering from both mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.
“Minority patients with substance abuse disorders suffer from two stigmas–being minorities and having substance abuse problems,” said Spiga.
“They are also often suffering from mental illnesses and they don’t have access to the health care they deserve.”
Spiga added that a report from the U.S. Surgeon General indicated that minorities were underrepresented in the field of mental health care research.
Test subjects for the project will be drawn from department of psychiatry’s acute in-patient unit in Temple Medical School.
Over 80 percent of the patients admitted to the unit for mental illnesses are either African American or Hispanic; over 80 percent of the minority patients also suffer from substance abuse problems.
The project will consist of three stages.
In the first stage, researchers will seek to develop a new series of treatments that combine effective treatments of mental illnesses with effective treatments of substance abuse disorders.
“You usually don’t treat someone who’s abusing drugs for schizophrenia,” said Spiga.
“But our data shows that someone suffering from one problem could very well be suffering from the other. So we’ll try to combine the treatments.”
The second stage will determine the effectiveness of the new treatments.
“Once we’ve developed the treatments we’ll test them against older treatments to determine their effectiveness,” said Spiga.
The final stage takes place after patients have completed treatment at the in-patient unit of the Medical School.
During this stage the researchers will track patients through a research tool developed by the department of urban studies known as geographical information systems, or GIS.
The tool examines social, economic, cultural and geographic data within a patient’s community in order to project how likely a recovering patient might be to suffer a relapse into mental illness or a substance abuse disorder.
“Most of the time when we look at the likelihood of a relapse, we look at the physical characteristics of a person,” said Urban Studies professor Dr. Jerry Stahler.
“This is the first time anyone has looked at the community surrounding that person.”
Stahler also said that any number of factors could cause a relapse.
“If you’ve got heavy narcotics trafficking in the patient’s area, it could lead to a relapse of drug abuse,” he said.
“Or if a patient still needs to receive treatment, and he lives far away from the hospital that can treat him, it’s hard to motivate that patient to come in for treatment.”
Ultimately, the researchers hope that the project will increase the number of minority persons who are effectively treated for what they suffer from.
“We hope to develop treatments that will be geared towards the particular needs of minority communities,” said Spiga.
Jerome Montes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.