May 3, 2016
Program trains the next generation of leaders in addiction studies from around the world
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After graduating from the School of Social Work in 2008, Amira Turner worked as a wellness coordinator at an assisted living facility, and also helped her dad – a licensed clinical social worker himself – with co-facilitating substance abuse group therapy sessions.
Now, Turner is back at Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing not only a Master of Social Work, but also a Master of Science in Addiction Studies degree from the International Programme in Addiction Studies — a partnership between three of the world's top research universities in the field of addiction science: King's College London, the University of Adelaide in Australia and VCU.
“Nearly every aspect of social work involves addiction. You’ve got people dealing with psychological problems they’ve experienced, dealing with trauma and maybe abusing substances as a result,” Turner said. “There are a lot of people who are affected by addiction. So I feel like having a specialized understanding of everything involved in addiction — not just that it causes neurobiological changes or that it’s genetic or that it’s very stigmatized — but it’s such a large issue, that the more I learn, it feels like the bigger it gets.”
As students in the International Programme in Addiction Studies, Turner and her classmates from around the world are taking online courses on such topics as the biological basis of addiction, pharmacotherapies, psychosocial interventions and public health and policy related to addiction, as well as courses focusing on research.
The program’s instructors and guest lecturers are among the leading experts on addiction, said program director and leader Mary Loos, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“Within each of our courses, we have lecturers who are the ‘who’s who’ of addiction knowledge from around the world,” she said. “We really do have an international cast of lecturers. We’re not limited to just the people at each of our universities. We have the best of the best.”
The faculty of the three universities developed the program’s content together, allowing them to offer a program with a breadth, depth and global perspective that a single university could not deliver, said Femke T.A. Buisman-Pijlman, Ph.D., senior lecturer in addiction studies in the School of Medicine and program director at the University of Adelaide of the International Master of Science in Addiction Studies.
“Students are taught by faculty from the three universities, but also have access to presentations prepared by external leaders in the field,” she said. “They also learn from each other about local approaches and develop an increased understanding of their local situation. It is a truly engaging program with passionate teachers and students. I learn something new from the students every course.”
So far, the program has graduated 69 students from 19 countries on six continents.
The students come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including from the fields of addiction prevention, treatment and policy, and law enforcement, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and education.
The program considers the effects of illicit drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine, the misuse of medications such as prescription pain killers, as well as legal substances such as alcohol and nicotine. “As our understanding of addiction grows, we are even beginning to include behavioral addictions such as gambling and online gaming to our curriculum,” Loos said.
Bola Ola, a consultant psychiatrist in Lagos, Nigeria, who received a master’s degree from the program in 2015, said the program helped address gaps related to addiction in his residency.
“My master’s degree in addiction studies has helped my work greatly,” he said. “It has increased my skills and competencies in addiction. I have also been able to impact knowledge on my trainees in the teaching hospital where I work. I have also increased my academic publications in addiction.”
Ola added that the program proved valuable because its faculty members are among the world’s best in the field of addiction, the program is online and it connects its students with an international network of colleagues and teachers.
The program’s master’s degree requires eight courses – six content courses and two on research. Of the six content courses, each university is responsible for two, and all of them are offered through VCU’s learning management system.
The program also offers two certificates in addiction studies, which require either three or six courses, without the research component.
At VCU, the program started several years ago with startup funding from the School of Medicine and it is located in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
By bringing together students and faculty from different countries, the program offers international perspectives and discussions on addiction that otherwise would likely be impossible.
“It’s not just that the program is cross-cultural in the sense that there are three different universities on three different continents providing courses. It’s that the students have very different perspectives and very different local contexts,” Loos said. “It provides a really rich immersion in how people around the world think about drugs and alcohol, how they think about people who use drugs and alcohol, and what they think are reasonable solutions to drugs and alcohol.
“You get these very intense, impassioned conversations on our discussion boards that are really quite remarkable,” she added.
Turner said it has been eye-opening to communicate with her classmates around the world.
“We’ve got Singapore, we’ve got Africa, we’ve got Malaysia, there’s somebody in Canada, three people I think in Australia,” she said. “It’s really cool. We get a different topic each week — everything is online — but the instructors who are all experts in the field of addiction studies also get other experts to give lectures. The [faculty member] will open up a discussion, and we really get into it. We’ve talked about different things and different dynamics in each country. Stuff like, this intervention [for addiction] works in this country, but it might not work in this other country. It’s cool to have that interaction.”
The program conveys how addiction is a truly worldwide issue, Loos said.
“[It gives students an] understanding that similar drug problems exist throughout the world, and that there are patterns and waves of drug use epidemics that eventually sweep across the world,” she said. “Opioids, for example, may have started in one place, but it certainly made its way around the world. The faces of those epidemics change depending on where you are in the world, but the problems created are enormous, no matter where you are.”
Turner said she is interested in one day planning large-scale addiction intervention programs, perhaps through the National Institute on Drug Abuse or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the program has been providing her with the necessary macro-level policy and public health background.
We’re creating capacity across continents.
“Addiction is preventable. If we can stop it from starting, even if it’s a genetic trait, if they don’t ever start using substances, they aren’t going to become addicted,” she said. “So I’m interested in figuring out how to develop prevention programming that is effective across multiple populations.”
Helping students like Turner advance their careers and thereby help people and societies struggling with addiction are the program’s ultimate goal, Loos said.
“We’re creating capacity across continents,” she said. “We are training the leaders of the next generation.”
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