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A Call to Brotherly Humanity: Two Philadelphia Addiction Professionals Grapple with What More We Need to Do
Two drug overdose deaths in one week at Temple University strikes painfully at home as we learned about Michael Paytas and James Orlando who lost their lives related to drug overdoses. We are both addiction professionals working in Philadelphia and facing the loss of our friends, clients and loved ones on a daily basis.
People struggling with substance use is nothing new to us with a combined experience of several decades we have witnessed first hand the rise and fall of the various drugs du jour and the growth of the war on drugs. We have not only experienced it as professionals but also people in recovery from substance use disorders ourselves.
With the opioid epidemic on every news channel and newspaper on the local and national level we should not be surprised that this scourge has reached our local universities. According to the DEA Analysis of Drug Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania the drug-related overdose death rate in 2016 was 36.5 per 100,000. Philadelphia has over 70 institutions of higher education and in our region with well over 100,000 students, it is no leap to believe there are actually many more overdoses that never make the front page of the newspaper – we in fact know of many and anecdotally, so many more than in previous years. The disconnect, or cognitive dissonance, for people is that “good kids” go to college and that stereotypical “bad kids,” or “other people’s kids,” use drugs. The recent stories of Temple University students and the many like them should only remind us that addiction does not discriminate.
It is hard to comprehend because as parents we send our kids off to college expecting in loco parentis and thinking that the university will provide for the health and safety needs of our children but local universities appear to be failing at that task. Temple University’s Tuttleman Counseling Services is probably one of the best college counseling centers in our region. It provides excellent services to students with substance use disorders. They have had psychiatrists prescribe Suboxone and treat opioid use disorder long before any psychiatrists were doing that at college counseling centers. They have offered drug and alcohol groups, student 12-step meetings and evidence-based individual therapy for students from either abstinence or harm-reduction perspectives.
Most universities aren’t willing to assume that risk and most universities want to wash their hands of this responsibility to treat our students. Temple at least, tries valiantly and they deserve all the kudos in the world for it. The grim reality is that what happened last week will continue to happen. Addiction can make any university, treatment professional or family member look really, really bad. Our local universities must drastically rearrange their priorities if we do not want to read more stories like this.
The University of Pennsylvania made national headlines just a few years ago after a rash of student deaths some attributed the lack of availability of proactive outreach of mental health services as part of the problem. Penn State has made numerous similar headlines this past year. Universities must continue to train faculty and staff to recognize the signs of substance use disorders and mental health conditions and continue to research and implement effective processes to engage students in these services. From the boards of directors down to students struggling to navigate a complicated new world where drugs and alcohol are ubiquitous, we need to find multiple ways to support students who use substances and those who enter recovery.
We must lift up and support our students in recovery with collegiate recovery programs. Students in recovery at Drexel, Upenn, SJU, and West Chester have been advocating for these services for themselves and their peers and felt stymied by bureaucracy and a lack of fiscal support. Our hope is that recent tragedies will serve as a wake up call to all our schools that we must better support students with substance use disorders and that we might create models to support students who wish to get well. We must let students know that Philadelphia has some of the strongest and healthiest addiction treatment and recovery communities in any metropolitan city of the world.
We have world class addiction research centers in Philadelphia. We have excellent inpatient and intensive outpatient drug and alcohol treatment. We have state of the art college counseling centers and numerous mental health professionals trained in the treatment of the substance use disorders. Philadelphia is a hot bed for mutual support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other twelve-step fellowships with hundreds of AA meetings on a daily basis in addition to alternatives to twelve step recovery meetings such as SMART recovery. We have private practice addiction psychologists, drug and alcohol therapy groups, Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention groups and more.
We must also change our individual and collegiate perspective of who’s job it is to make changes at the macro and micro level. Universities need to refrain from draconian punitive responses to drug and alcohol use and instead increase promotion of prevention, wellness, outreach, counseling services, medication assisted therapies and harm reduction. We must call our alma maters and our children’s schools and demand to know if they properly equipping and training staff to address and respond to the opioid epidemic.
At the individual level, we must encourage students to have conversations with all of their friends about addiction. Ask students to talk to each other about their use. Ask students to consider and discuss the role that drugs and alcohol play in their lives. Ask students to ask others if they have ever gotten help. Do they need someone to talk to now? Can you help them find someone to talk to about the role drugs or alcohol plays in their lives? We must do the same with our own peers and family ourselves. Talk about your own struggles with mental health. Half of us in the United States can be diagnosed with some form of mental illness at some point in our lives. Allow ourselves to be vulnerable, show by example. Offer to go to a counselor or to a meeting with someone you care about. Talk about your own recovery if you identify as a person of recovery. Let people know recovery works. Ultimately we must all acknowledge the humanity of people who use drugs. This disease deserves compassion too. No student and no person, has to suffer this fate.
Jeremy Frank is an addiction psychologist practicing in Philadelphia at Jeremy Frank and Associates, a person in long term recovery from a substance use disorder and the former Coordinator of Campus Alcohol and Substance Awareness at Temple University, Tuttleman Counseling Services.
Devin Reaves is National Speaker on Addiction, a person in long term recovery from a substance use disorder and is the Executive Director at Life of Purpose New Jersey, a treatment program that specializes in the treatment of college students struggling with addiction on college campuses.