Strengthening the Heartland program receives grant to expand opioid addiction programming

'Strengthening the Heartland' is a program aimed at helping rural and farming communities in North Dakota and South Dakota fight the rising opioid epidemic.

Strengthening the Heartland is a program aimed towards helping rural communities with the rising problem of opioid misuse. (Contributed photo)

North Dakota State University Extension and South Dakota State University Extension have received grants to expand their joint program that offer services geared toward preventing the misuse of opioids.

Strengthening the Heartland has received over $800,000 in funding through grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The two Extension agencies created the program in 2019. Addiction to prescription opioids continues to be an issue for rural and farming communities throughout the nation.

“With opioid misuse a rising problem in North Dakota, this grant allows us to provide the resources and tools to individuals in rural communities who may not have access to health care and resources,” said Meagan Scott Hoffman, a 4-H youth development specialist for NDSU Extension and one of the project leaders for Strengthening the Heartland.

In North Dakota, more than 65% of those who misuse prescription opioids acquired them from family or friends, according to the program's research. Rural areas in North Dakota and South Dakota are also seeing a trend of inadequate access to mental health care and services, which is a contributing factor to substance misuse.


“According to our research more than 90% of counties in North Dakota and South Dakota are classified as having a mental health professional shortage,” Hoffman said.

This shortage is a problem for many people in rural and farming communities that are seeking professional help, but have nowhere to turn in their community.

“After an injury where I was prescribed pain medication, I got hooked and just kept going back for different refills and things like that," said Melissa Piatz of Wishek, N.D. "I was abusing them and was not able to stop taking them. I eventually ended up needing therapy as well as rehab, something that was not offered in my community. They don’t offer any of that around here. I ended up having to seek help away from home."

Piatz stressed the importance of offering mental health services and having programs like Strengthening the Heartland to those who are trying to overcome an opioid dependency. Having such programs in place would especially help those who cannot leave their home to seek treatment.

“It’s going to be an amazing thing to have this kind of program available in rural areas, especially for people who might have a family and are trying to get their life back on track, but do not want to have to travel and be away from their loved ones," Piatz said. "Programs like this would give them the tools they need close by so they can still try to maintain their family life and get better at the same time."

The youth program, "This is (Not) About Drugs," features an hour presentation geared for kids in grades 6-12 that raises awareness of the risks of misusing prescription pills. The program, which can be used in schools as well as after-school programs, teaches how to relieve stress with healthy actions rather than through substances. School counselors or anyone else interested in presenting the program can be trained to do so.

“The change in knowledge is notable, given the brief one-hour nature of the presentation,” Hoffman said.

Through Strengthening the Heartland, participants can go through CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), which helps family and friends develop strategies for helping loved ones who may be struggling with substance abuse. The training encompasses 12 sessions that teach things like positive reinforcement, communication and motivation techniques, how to analyze substance abuse patterns and when to intervene as well as safety precautions and more.


The training program has yielded great results so far. Seven out of 10 of the participants' loved ones entered treatment as a result of them participating in CRAFT.

“Overall, we are striving to empower and equip the citizens of North Dakota with the tools needed to address opioid misuse,” Hoffman said. “It is our team’s hope that we can work together to promote rural prosperity and rural wellness across the Dakotas.”

To find out more about Strengthening the Heartland, visit: .

If you or someone close to you needs immediate help for a substance use disorder, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration help line at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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