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Substance Use Disorders

Connecting science, community and policy to empower New Mexicans to prevent and overcome substance use disorders.

A Crisis that Affects Us All

Substance use and substance use disorder (SUD) are leading causes of illness and mortality in New Mexico, and are associated with high social costs and increased human suffering. New Mexico leads the nation in alcohol-related deaths, continues to have high rates of opioid overdose, and is experiencing increased rates of stimulant and sedative-related deaths. Substance use in New Mexico affects us all, with our state having the lowest high school graduation rates and ranking in the top 5 of US states for accidental death, suicide, underemployment, and childhood poverty. New Mexico remains in the top third of states in opioid-related overdose deaths.

Collaborative Research Focused on Prevention, Treatment and Policy

We believe that the problems around addiction can be addressed by collaborating with prevention and treatment systems, the criminal justice system, the education system, and other points of contact (e.g., primary/prenatal/pediatric care, emergency medicine, poison control).  Our team utilizes a three-pronged approach to target substance use and addiction: prevention, treatment, and policy.

Innovative Researchers on Multiple Campuses

The Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team is a large, multidisciplinary group of experts in the field of substance use and addiction. Co-led by UNM Health Science Center and Central Campus, our team includes professors, psychologists, physicians, nurses, political scientists, economists, communication experts, community members and state policy makers.  These individuals work together on novel approaches to reduce the prevalence and impact of substance use disorders in New Mexico.  Dr. Katie Witkiewitz from the UNM Department of Psychology and Center on Alcoholism Substance Abuse and Addictions, and Dr. Brandi Fink from the UNM Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Clinical and Translational Science Center lead this team.

Contact Information

Please contact the Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team by email at

Lead Conveners

Katie Witkiewitz, Ph.D. Regents’ Professor, Department of Psychology.  Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions.

Brandi Fink, Ph.D.  Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Clinical and Translational Science Center.

Preliminary Research Questions

The Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team is broadly focused on substance use, including a specific focus on opioid use.

Only 24% of individuals with alcohol dependence and only 14.7% of individuals with a substance use disorder receive professional help for their disorder. This is driven, in part, by stigma of substance use disorder. This stigma is present in three forms: stereotyping, which occurs when perceptions of substance use disorder are linked to the negative characteristics of an individual, rather than considering substance use disorder as a chronic health condition with available treatments; emotional reactions of fear or disgust toward individuals with substance use disorders, and status loss and discrimination where individuals are perceived as having less value and are treated unjustly. Our research will focus on reducing stigma of substance use disorders in our communities. We have effective prevention and treatment programs and reducing stigma has been shown to increase acceptability of prevention efforts and to improve access to treatment.

Prevention of substance use and dependence saves lives and money. Substance use disorders, using opioids not as prescribed, and drug-related overdoses can be avoided through rigorous preventions efforts. All of the community coalitions throughout the state have identified prescription painkillers as their number one priority. A focus of our research will be working with local communities and schools to test prevention efforts to reduce the development of substance use disorders and opioid-related problems.

Acknowledging that New Mexico is comprised of mostly rural communities, access to substance use treatment is severely limited in these areas. We must develop and test innovative ways of meeting the substance use treatment needs in rural communities. In addition, 76% of fatal drug overdoses among individuals released from prison and jail occur within two weeks of release. A focus of our research will be on methods of improving access to behavioral treatments and healthcare for individuals recently involved with the criminal justice system, including those released to rural communities. We must help overcome barriers identified by rural providers and families to improve access to substance use treatment for those in need.

UNM has had a long and productive history of working closely with numerous local, county and state governmental agencies in addressing the behavioral health and substance use issues of New Mexicans. We will continue to leverage these relationships to coordinate and test novel approaches to the prevention and treatment of substance use and substance use disorders.

Across academic disciplines, UNM’s technological resources are unparalleled in New Mexico.  We will leverage these to explore how prevention, and early intervention and treatment can be effectively delivered via telehealth for rural patients-in-need. We will also develop new methods for using technology to better treat substance use disorders in general medical settings, thereby reducing provider burden.

It is without controversy that the current opioid crisis was initiated by the high-volume prescription opioid prescribing habits of clinicians fueled by aggressive marketing by manufacturers and lax controls over distribution. A focus of our research will be on ways to train providers in changing opioid prescribing behaviors to improve patient safety.

The number of providers who can provide medications for opioid use disorder has increased significantly due to statewide efforts. Unfortunately, many patients still require access to these medications. A focus of our research will be on ways to increase the number of patients receiving medications for opioid use disorders.

Individuals who eventually die from an opioid-related overdose often have had several nonfatal overdoses. A focus of our research will be on testing methods for engaging individuals in treatment who have experienced a nonfatal opioid overdose.

Pilot Research Projects

The Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team is pleased to announce the funding of nine pilot projects targeting substance use and substance use disorders in New Mexico via basic, applied, and implementation research among UNM faculty. Pilot projects will be studying a range of substances, from cocaine to alcohol to cannabis to opioids, across a range of populations and systems of care, and all projects include cross-departmental and/or cross-campus collaborations, including the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions; Campus Office of Substance Abuse Prevention; Women's Resource Center; Institute for Social Research; Mind Research Network; and the Departments of Anthropology, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Family and Community Medicine, Internal Medicine, Neurosciences, Pathology and Radiology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Psychology. Please see the list below for project titles and lead investigators.

Assessment for the Collegiate Recovery Community.  Lead Investigator: Randall Starling

Biomarkers of Aberrant Control and Reward Processing in Individuals with an Alcohol Use Disorder.  Lead Investigator: James Cavanagh

Development and Validation of Opioid Protective Behavioral Strategies Measure.  Lead Investigator: Margo Hurlocker

Do Granular Classifications of Ethnicity Capture Hidden Heterogeneity in the Causes of Early and Alcohol-Related Death?  Lead Investigator: Heather Edgar

Effects of the 5-HT2A receptor antagonist M100907 on behavioral and neural alterations induced by chronic methamphetamine administration. Lead Investigator: Nathan Pentkowski, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology.

Evaluation of the New Mexico Naloxone Co-prescribing Law.  Lead Investigator: Margo Hurlocker

Probing the Mechanisms of Narcotics Anonymous Using Ecological Momentary Assessment.  Lead Investigator: Matthew Pearson

Ready to Change? A Microlongitudinal Study of Polysubstance Use. Lead Investigators: Frank Joseph Schwebel, Postdoctoral Fellow, CASAA; and Mateo Pearson, Assistant Professor, CASAA.

Trajectories and mental health predictors of perinatal alcohol and polysubstance use. Lead Investigators: Pilar Sanjuan, Assistant Professor, CASAA; Lawrence Leeman, Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine; and Eric Kruger, Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Therapy.

Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation to Boost the Efficacy of Motivational Interviewing. Lead Investigator: Jon Houck

Understand the Physical/Chemical Properties and Interdomain Dynamics Governing the Biological Functions of PICK1 in Drug Addiction.  Lead Investigator: Yi He

Use of Cannabis-Based Products for Opioid Use Disorder: A Strategic Observational Study.  Lead Investigator: Matthew Pearson


COVID-19 Rapid Response Pilot Projects:

The Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge team recently released its third request for pilot research proposals. This request focused specifically on research examining the impact of COVID-19 and New Mexico stay at home orders on substance use patterns and behavioral health symptoms, as well as access to care and positive and negative consequences of stay at home orders among individuals who engage in substance use and those with substance use disorders.

The following four pilot projects were selected:

Changes in Drinking During the COVID19 Stay at Home Order among a Community Sample of Non-Treatment Seeking Heavy Drinkers in New Mexico. Lead Investigators: Katie Witkiewitz, Regents' Professor, Department of Psychology and CASAA; and Eric Claus, Associate Professor Translational Neuroscience, Mind Research Network.

COVID-19 Impact on SUD Needs of SMI Patients at UNM UPC COPE Clinic: Toward Initiation of Low-Threshold SUD Services. Lead Investigator: Laura Brown, Clinical Assistant Professor in UNM Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

COVID RESIST: Resilience and Steadiness in Substance Use During the COVID-19 Crisis. Lead Investigators: Lori Keeling and Judith Biesen, Postdoctoral Fellows, UNM Hospital Addictions and Substance Abuse Program (UNMH ASAP).

Substance Use Patterns among College Students Peri- and Post-COVID-19 Shutdown. Lead Investigator: Matthew Pearson, Research Associate Professor, CASAA.


Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge Graduate Student Scholars Program

The University of New Mexico Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) Grand Challenge aims to decrease substance use and addiction, and their impacts on health, criminal justice, education, and social welfare, and to improve prevention, treatment, and policy related to substance use and disorder across New Mexico. The goal of the Graduate Student Scholars Program is to provide financial support for research and research mentoring from members of the SUDs Grand Challenge Leadership team to graduate students enrolled in doctoral degree programs at UNM. Supporting research that examines health equity and inequity among historically disadvantaged groups in New Mexico is a goal of this program.

We are pleased to announce the following UNM Doctoral Students as the 2020 Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge Student Scholars:
Melissa C. Henry, Department of Individual, Family and Community Education, whose research focuses on the lived experience of Hispanic female counselors in rural New Mexico and who is interested in conducting community-based participatory research projects examining trauma and substance use disorder in rural New Mexico communities.
Alexandra Hernandez-Vallant, Department of Psychology, whose research focuses on the intersection between addiction and health disparities among Hispanic/Latinx populations and who is interested in conducting research on addiction in diverse communities that will have a lasting impact on health policy and the lives of people facing addiction in New Mexico.
Alena Kuhlemeier, Department of Sociology, who conducts research focused on the health and well-being of sexual and gender minority youth and is interested in examining quantitative intersectional techniques and qualitative data to study the meso- and macro-level determinants of sexual and gender minority youth behavioral health in New Mexico.
Carmela M. Roybal, Department of Sociology, who takes an intersectional approach to understanding the health and social inequities experienced by women who have been impacted by the opioid epidemic and is studying the intersection of race, gender, ethnicity, tribal status, and class in the perpetuation of intergenerational addiction in New Mexico communities.
Brigitte R. Stevens, Department of Psychology, whose research focuses on gaining a better understanding of neurophysiology and how neurophysiology impacts the etiology of substance use disorder and elucidating processes that may ultimately improve treatment outcomes for diverse individuals with substance use disorder in New Mexico.

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