The University of Texas at Austin has plenty of researchers, staff members and students with the first-hand experience around addiction — whether they are in recovery or studying the way drugs interact with pathways in our brains. Until now, many of those people have operated separately, which is why UT Austin kicked off a “Pop-Up Institute” Monday on Youth Addiction and Substance Misuse.

This Pop-Up Institute is a month-long joining of the minds at UT to discuss the problems around youth addiction and to come up with solutions. The Institute will last through May 15 and aims to create more community resources to help out young adults on the road to recovery while also setting up university players to deliver better recommendations for curbing abuse and addiction. It’s sponsored by UT’s Office of the Vice President for Research. 

The project coordinator for this Pop-Up, Adam Holt, is happy to say he’s been sober for nearly a year. He’s currently getting a Master’s in Health Behavior and Education. For him, fitness has been crucial in fighting addiction, which is why he is doing research on how exercise can help prevent relapse.

“Having purpose in life is something that I think especially us in recovery need, it can’t just be about us anymore,” Holt said

People like Holt will share the ideas they’re working over the next month in discussions, roundtables and town halls. The goal is to build on what’s been learned from the programs UT already has like the Center for Students in Recovery and “Operation Naloxone.”

Operation Naloxone has worked to make Naloxone nasal spray (to give to someone who’s overdosed) accessible all around campus. Now UT Police officers are supplied with it as are all of the 24/7 centers in UT’s residence halls. Residence life staff are trained every fall to administer Naloxone to other students, but directions are also available in the dorms so students can administer it themselves. 

Mylon Kirksy, the director of Residence Life, said the push to get these nasal sprays in dorms started with students. 

“Anytime we can do anything to help save a life, that’s something that we ought to do,” Kirksy said. “And I think we’re in a  position to do it and we’re thankful our students thought enough of it to bring the initiative to our campus.”

Over the more than two years Kirksy has worked at UT, none of the RA’s have had to administer Naloxone. However, UTPD did access one dose of Naloxone in Jester Hall, and on April 13 a student called the nurse hotline in distress and was directed to the Kinsolving Hall desk to get Naloxone. The student went to the desk, staff there called EMS and medics showed up to treat the student before staff could even get to the Naloxone. 

Lori Holleran Steiker, a leader in the movement to bring Naloxone to campus and the director of this Pop-Up Institute, is a professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. She said bringing together people to address addiction this way is a career dream come true.

“It really is an unbelievable think tank and Petri dish for all kinds of things that wouldn’t have happened if we continued to work in our own disciplines,”  she said. 

Why focus on addiction in youth and young adults? Holleran Steiker said that the key to addressing addiction generally is to help young adults with early intervention and help give them support as they age. She explained that 90 percent of people with addiction started using in adolescence. 

After years of looking addiction on a systemic level, Holleran Steiker believes this team approach will be the best way to find solutions that work. 

“There really is this system, this ecosystem that you have to create to really be a safety net for youth and to be effective to intervene when youth are in trouble,” she said. 

She explained that thanks to the Pop-Up, UT researchers who study the brains of adolescent rats can now meet with counselors and high school leaders to talk about the different challenges they each see with addiction. Holleran Steiker hopes their efforts help to get rid of some of the stigmas around addiction and help families get to treatment and support. 

“I think that’s the most important thing is for families to recognize there is hope and there is help,” Steiker said. 

While UT hopes these partnerships continue after the Pop-Up ends, they plan to present the university and the community with concrete recommendations by the end of the month.

“And we’re not only gonna say, ‘this needs to happen’ but we’re gonna partner with you to make sure it happens because this is something that is more important now than it ever has been,” Holt said. 

“If you look at the opioid epidemic that is going on right now, and the increase in the Adderall prescriptions, just all the stress that UT students are under, coupled with the fact that UT is a leading research institute,” Holt continued,”the resources it has and the diverse community, UT is really primed to set the way or continue to set the way for this research.”

Along with other elements of this Pop-Up Institute, UT will have a drug take-back day April 25 at the Littlefield fountain, and a town hall with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration addressing abuse on May 14, then an all-day summit at Dell Medical School on May 15.

UT’s concept of the Pop-Up institute began last year. In addition to the Youth Addiction Pop-up, UT will also host Pop-Ups on Health and Humanities and Planetary Habitability. 

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