On the 7th floor of CCNY’s North Academic Center, study participants have their hairs moved out of the way, conductive gel applied to their scalps and electrodes carefully attached to their heads. Their intention is to participate in an effort aimed at ameliorating the overall mental health of the external community.
CCNY’s Translational Research on Emotion, Addiction and Trauma (TREAT) lab utilizes electroencephalogram (EEG) methods in part with larger scaled, health services—based analyses to inform the design and implementation of community mental health interventions. The lab focuses at the intersection of addictive disorders, mental health, and the impacts of trauma, to bridge one of the fundamental gaps that exist in healthcare, which according to Dr. Teresa Lopez-Castro, is “the way that historically our addiction care has operated very separately from our health care system.”
By investigating the interconnectedness of addictive disorders and mental health, Dr. Lopez-Castro aims to help “the most marginalized groups with substance use disorders,” including those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
At the TREAT lab, psychologists, both cognitive and clinical, team up with medical doctors, computer scientists and social epidemiologists, to target the problems faced by those with limited access to evidence-based addiction and mental health care. Collaborating with researchers at Adelphi University, Albert Einstein-Montefiore, the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and other institutions that vary in locality and community served, the TREAT lab’s shared focus and expansive research network enables cross-country comparative analysis of the structural and social factors affecting drug use and mental health.
“We work from a real team science approach, which is one of the core pillars of doing translational science.”
Their multifaceted approach captures the social and structural complexities that make certain groups of people more susceptible to poor outcomes related to mental health and substance use disorders.
“What I love about the research is being able to sit with people from diverse research backgrounds, life backgrounds, clinical backgrounds, working on a manuscript or tackling an unforeseen problem, and getting their input — knowing that we’re more than the sum of us individually.”
Operating as a liaison, Dr. Lopez-Castro’s TREAT lab establishes a bi-directional, and often multi-directional, flow of information between the lab and the community. Though lab-based work is on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Lopez-Castro travels to syringe service programs in The Bronx to interview individuals who inject drugs. One of the TREAT lab’s research aims is addressing the societal stigma that serves as an obstructive force, interfering with people’s ability to seek out and engage with addictions services. Syringe service programs (SSPs) are key sites for increasing receptivity to health care by providing people who use drugs with clean needles, HIV/HCV testing, and referrals to health care in a non-judgmental setting.
Her boots-on-the-ground approach affords her with ample opportunity to interview clients, who share priceless information which can be used to both advance research, and improve the efficacy of healthcare outreach – fieldwork stimulates valuable scientific inquiry.
“Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounds them, what the research has consistently found is that SSPs are fantastic bridges to addiction treatment, especially for people who have been poorly served in the past by the traditional system. In my work with SSPs, what we are doing is inviting the perspective of those with lived experience using qualitative methodologies, which helps us generate new hypotheses—rather than the hypothesis confirming approach we rely on in the lab.”
Dr. Lopez-Castro is using the findings from this qualitative research to create more precisely-targeted interventions for people with opioid use disorders. Intervention is even more urgently needed now, in the global health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in communities like The South Bronx and East Harlem, where low income and people of color are disproportionately affected.
Over 80,000 people in the U.S. have died in 2020 from an overdose, shares Dr. Lopez-Castro, “this number should be a real call-to-arms; it’s the highest recorded in a 12-month period ever, and it only captures the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a context that is likely to increase overdoses even more.”