When Saket Bikmal first stepped into a class about the Appalachian community last fall, never did he think it would lead him to the General Assembly, ready to testify about a bill.
It was a bill he and his Virginia Tech classmates helped draft that could potentially improve substance-abuse treatment in Southwest Virginia. The legislation, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, calls for a feasibility study to expand Catawba Hospital’s current role of mental health care.
“I didn’t think it would reach the scope it did,” said Bikmal, who is studying computational and systems neuroscience.
On Thursday, the bill unanimously passed the House Rules Committee. This morning, it will head to a House Appropriations subcommittee, where Rasoul will request about $3.5 million to fund the study.
“If passed, this bill has the power to transform and heal lives,” the students wrote last week on Facebook, one of the three social media platforms they’ve been using to drum up support for the legislation, which has wide bi-partisan support.
The fact that the bill reached this far is a huge achievement for Emily Satterwhite’s semester-long Appalachian Community Research class, which is tasked with working with community partners to identify and develop projects that would improve the lives of people in Appalachia. The course is supported by a program of the Appalachian Regional Commission called the Appalachian Teaching Project.
Last fall, Satterwhite, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture, and her co-teacher, Julia Gohlke, an associate professor of environmental health in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, challenged their 11 students to go beyond the research and develop policy recommendations for a specific issue: substance use disorder recovery in Southwest Virginia.
Previous students had already done a lot of research on the issue, and Satterwhite wanted to keep that momentum going. The fall 2021 class jumped to action, and they began conducting dozens of interviews with substance abuse counselors and other medical professionals, as well as nonprofit leaders and government officials.
Substance abuse is a national problem, of course, but it’s been far more dire in Appalachia, where opioids have particularly been an issue. The overdose mortality rate there in 2018 was 43 percent higher for 25- to 54-year-olds than the national rate, according to the ARC.
The Virginia Tech students eventually settled on a proposal involving Catawba Hospital. The mental health facility northeast of Blacksburg in Roanoke County had been on Rasoul’s radar since the state tried to close the campus five years ago. A few years after the failed closure, a coalition including Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic in Roanoke and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute started putting together a blueprint of possibilities for its future.
Satterwhite invited Rasoul to speak to the class. He also conducted a “You Write the Bill” workshop, helping the group come up with legislation that asks the state to look at transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art facility at which a continuum of substance abuse treatment and recovery services, including long-term, short-term, acute and outpatient services, is provided.
“It was great to find students who were motivated to challenge the way we look at substance abuse,” Rasoul said.
A draft of the legislation went off to legal experts, and the class was thrilled when they learned Rasoul was going to sponsor a bill in the House of Delegates. It quickly gained co-patrons from both parties, including Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, whose district covers Catawba, and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax County, as chief co-patrons. As of Sunday, the bill had 23 co-patrons, most of them Republicans.
“It’s very exciting to see so many Southwest representatives from this area sign on,” Satterwhite said. “Substance abuse recovery is not a partisan problem. It’s something both Democrats and Republicans recognize is a crying need.”
Most of the students are from Northern Virginia and said until they took the class, they all hadn’t known how bad the substance abuse problem was in Southwest Virginia. They especially learned a lot from a peer recovery specialist at New River Valley Community Services, who spoke to them about his own journey from addiction to recovery. Bikmal, who is from Ashburn, said that helped build a real emotional connection for him and others.
“To see how the overall epidemic has affected millions of lives across the nation has really been eye-opening,” said Hannah O’Malley, a 21-year-old clinical neuroscience major from Fairfax. “I wasn’t born in Appalachia, but it was empowering to learn more about it. It’s definitely important to be able to publicize it and make people aware of the issue.”
The class also experienced what it was like to talk to their own legislators about the need to support Southwest Virginia, Satterwhite said.
Tech class sets up advocacy sites
The Virginia Tech class set up social media accounts to advocate for the Catawba Hospital bill as it makes its way through the legislative session. They include @hokies4recovery on Twitter, @hokiesforsudrecovery on Instagram and Hokies for SUD Recovery on Facebook. Anyone can also send an email to the House of Delegates in support of HB105 by clicking tinyurl.com/SupportHB105.
The legislation would require $3.5 million to fund a study by the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, including planning for a campus design. The center’s goal would be relapse prevention, helping patients transition from treatment to sober-living facilities. Peer recovery would be a big component. The project itself, if funded, could eventually cost about $200 million, Rasoul said.
The Virginia Tech students see the project going even further, perhaps serving as a model across the country to combat the opioid and overdose epidemic. That’s the kind of attitude that impressed Rasoul from the beginning.
“To have students who are focused on Appalachian studies who are trying to give back gives us hope for our region,” he said. “They’re pretty dedicated to making a difference in their own backyard. It goes to show you the power of empathy.”
Last semester ended with the class presenting their project to the ARC, which commended them for tackling a topic that others might have avoided. Five of the 11 students were so committed that they continued their work this year as independent study, focusing on advocacy and drumming up support for the bill. Two of the students — Bikmal and 20-year-old Amanda Ljuba, a criminology major from Lorton — drove to Richmond from Blacksburg last week to testify before the House Rules Committee. The bill went to a vote before the students got to testify, but they were still glad to be able to watch the proceedings and get to talk to legislators, they said.
“It’s an issue that has been going on for a long time, affecting real people,” Bikmal said. “My goal is to make an impact. Even if it’s just one life that gets improved because of this study, that’s more than enough for me.”