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Matt MeeksIncoming graduate student Matt Meeks, who is working on a study with UWindsor psychology professor Onawa LaBelle this summer, has been awarded one of 107 research training internships at the University of Windsor.

Grad student researches pandemic’s effect on 12-step recovery programs

When Atlanta, Ga., resident Matt Meeks applied to pursue Master’s and PhD degrees at the University of Windsor, little could he have known he would be doing research on a global pandemic even before his graduate studies were scheduled to begin.

Meeks is working with psychology professor Onawa LaBelle on a study of how COVID-19 has affected the delivery and uptake of 12-step programs for alcohol and substance use disorder. They are surveying 322 people from seven countries who started attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous online after the availability of face-to-face meetings dropped substantially due to meeting locations closing.

“This is the first time I’ve done a project like this,” said Meeks, 24, from his home in Atlanta. “Usually, you don’t have much contact with your advisor in the summer before you start.”

Meeks is one of 107 UWindsor students receiving research training awards in the sum of $6,000. The University is solely funding 50 of these research internships. The other 57 are being co-funded by the University with Mitacs, a national non-profit organization that brings together Canadian academia, private industry, and government to provide research and training opportunities.

In all, the University of Windsor is spending $471,000 on research internships across all faculties, said K.W. Michael Siu, UWindsor’s vice-president, research and innovation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of academics, including student research and training experience,” Dr. Siu said. “I am absolutely delighted that the University of Windsor is able to partner with Mitacs in providing financial support and training opportunities for Canadian as well as international students.”

Meeks, a graduate of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said he has done literature reviews and projects involving secondary data analysis in his undergraduate studies, but he has never been involved in primary data collection.

“As an incoming graduate student, it’s imperative for me to develop my skills as a researcher,” Meeks said. “Understanding the process of developing a study from an idea to a completed project will greatly improve my ability to generate novel and significant contributions to my field.”

The purpose of the research project is to explore how social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of 12-step recovery.

Such recovery programs rely on participants regularly attending meetings led by peers. Before the pandemic, more than 71,000 such meetings took place each week across Canada and the United States, Dr. LaBelle said. Online meetings have been available for more than two decades, but they were used primarily in remote areas or in places without local meetings.

LaBelle said early results show people in recovery are attending more meetings now than they did before the pandemic. For some, it may be the novelty of online platforms. For example, one respondent from the United States said he was trying to attend an online meeting each day from a different state in the nation.

For some, particularly those with young children, it may be more convenient to attend by phone or online, LaBelle said. One respondent said she used to take her child to face-to-face meetings, but the youngster was always restless. Being at home has allowed the woman to attend meetings without worrying about causing disruptions.

Since support services like 12-step programs are critical to treating substance use disorder, LaBelle said she is interested in learning how the shift from face-to-face meetings affects participants’ recovery.

The data collected would help governments, clinicians, and organizations around the globe develop better policies on recovery services. The study could help personalize treatment to better meet the needs of individuals.

“This project will serve as a benchmark for the efficacy of digital recovery support services,” LaBelle said. “We will evaluate the positive or negative effects that materialize during this shift from physical to digital spaces amongst 12-step recovery communities.”

—Sarah Sacheli