Heller Receives $1.5 Million to Study Opioid Addiction and Treatment in Disability Community

October 09, 2018

A team of researchers at the Heller School has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to study opioid use disorder (OUD) among people with disabilities in the United States.

Principal Investigator Sharon Reif, PhD’02, senior scientist and deputy director of the Institute for Behavioral Health (IBH), will lead the study, dubbed “Project INROADS” (INtersecting Research on Opioid Misuse, Addiction, and Disability Services). Reif’s team combines deep expertise from two of Heller’s research institutes: IBH and the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy.

Reif says, “This project will examine opioid use disorder among people who have disabilities, broadly speaking. This is especially important because very little is known about the intersection of disability and addiction, let alone opioid addiction specifically. People with disabilities are at higher risk of pain and higher risk of addiction, yet have many barriers to care. We want to understand where the problems are for this population in terms of the addiction pathway, as well as the addiction treatment pathway.”

Monika Mitra, Director of the Lurie Institute and a partner on this project, says, “The cross-disability, cross-stakeholder approach of Project INROADS is critical to shaping optimal policies and targeted, effective supports for people with disabilities with opioid use disorders. We hope that the research findings will ultimately be used to improve the health, quality of life, and community living outcomes for people with disabilities.”

The research team will systematically review the literature to understand the existing research on opioid addiction among people with disabilities and conduct data analyses to measure OUD prevalence and treatment patterns for the disability population in the U.S. The study will look at the broad community of people with disabilities, and also conduct deep dives into sub-groups such as people with traumatic brain injury, autism, mental illness, and spinal cord injuries.

In addition to building the research base around disability and addiction, Project INROADS hopes to shed some light on pain management issues. Chronic pain may be more prevalent in certain sub-groups of people with disabilities, and for some it can lead to prescription-based opioid addictions. Reif notes that both opioid prescribing policy and addiction treatment policy may have unintended consequences, and that those policies may disproportionately impact people with disabilities.

IBH is also home to the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, where Reif and several partners on this work are affiliated researchers. Constance Horgan, director of IBH, says, “Project INROADS fits perfectly into the Institute’s broad research portfolio on addiction, including opioid addiction, and how systems of care can improve service delivery for all people with substance use disorders.”

Project INROADS will seek to ensure that the voices of people with disabilities and are captured throughout the project. For example, the team will work directly with an advisory board, state partner agencies, and service, policy and advocacy partners to guide the work, produce dissemination products, conduct focus groups with people with disabilities and host a conference to share their findings.

Professor of the Practice and co-investigator Joanne Nicholson says, “Our strategic focus on engaging diverse stakeholders – people with disabilities, those who plan and provide services, and those who care for them – will ensure the significance of the work and promote the rapid uptake of research findings, so that Project INROADS will have as much impact as possible.” 

This project is unique not only in its ambition to address a rarely examined social policy area, but also in its interdisciplinary nature. Although Heller has always prided itself on cultivating a collaborative and multidisciplinary research environment, this partnership between IBH and the Lurie Institute represents a new frontier. Dean David Weil says, “Heller has deep reserves of knowledge in addiction policy and disability policy. This award reflects not only our capacity to draw collaboratively on our in-house expertise, but also our ability to respond to an evolving research landscape. In a world of ever-more complex social issues, Heller must continue to generate creative and interdisciplinary research solutions.”

The Institute for Behavioral Health

The Institute for Behavioral Health, part of the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, is dedicated to research on mental health, substance use and addiction treatment. IBH research focuses on the intersection of health, behavior and systems of care, including the organization, delivery and financing of substance use and mental health services.

The Lurie Institute for Disability Policy

The Lurie Institute, part of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, is dedicated to innovative research and training initiatives that promote effective policies to improve the health and well-being of people with disabilities and their families across the lifespan. The Lurie Institute’s research addresses many critical issues facing people with disabilities and their families including poverty, unemployment, inequitable access to and quality of care, and a myriad of other social, health, and economic disparities