Wednesday’s town hall at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy focused on educating the Rutgers community on the opioid epidemic and how to move toward rehabilitative efforts outside the doctor’s office.
A panel of doctors and professionals with expertise in the field of opioid addiction and prescription spoke for approximately 2 hours to inform an audience of students and faculty on how opioid abuse is treated and how they can help themselves and their communities fight addiction.
Joseph Barone, the dean of the School of Pharmacy, introduced the event as an opportunity for the Rutgers community to understand the problems of addiction and how to best help those struggling to overcome drug abuse. The event was moderated by Nimit Jindal, a People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) student at the School of Pharmacy and the current national president of the American Pharmacists Association—Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP), who asked panelists questions and steered the conversation.
APhA-ASP is an organization of students in pharmacy schools across America. The organization seeks to “be the collective voice of student pharmacists, to provide opportunities for professional growth, to improve patient care and to envision and advance the future of pharmacy,” according to its website.
The panel consisted of four doctors, a substance abuse counselor and a student in recovery. All of the speakers had extensive experience with opioid abuse and treatment and elaborated on what they have seen in the field and steps that can be taken to alleviate drug abuse.
Of the four doctors, Patrick Bridgeman is a clinical pharmacist at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and a professor in the School of Pharmacy. Grant Wei has been an emergency physician at RWJUH for 16 years where he has treated many opioid overdoses and substance abuse conditions. John Chatlos, also affiliated with RWJUH, is a medical practitioner of two decades and specializes in psychiatry.
Another panelist was Robert Eilers, a psychiatrist and New Jersey Department of Human Services official, and Keith Murphy, the senior substance abuse counselor for the Recovery Housing program at Rutgers. The program helps students rebuild their lives and fight drug addiction, while giving them the opportunity of achieving higher education.
The panel addressed a variety of issues surrounding the use of opioids in America, including excessive prescription access, party culture and rehabilitation practices.
Chatlos said that one of the important aspects of the epidemic is how it is defined. The difference between use, abuse, addiction and disorder is important. Addiction is the loss of control and when an individual loses the ability to cognitively deny themselves the drug — becoming psychologically reliant on it, Chatlos said.
Although the use of drugs is the direct problem, addiction is not just about the pills, Chatlos said. It is also about the lives of abusers — the environment they are in, their problems at home, financial situation and mental health. All of these can impact an individual’s susceptibility to addiction.
The panel also discussed the importance of supportive care and how to help individuals once they leave the emergency room. Naloxone and other medications can save a patient for the day, but maintaining a drug-free lifestyle and avoiding future overdoses is something doctors do not have the ability to provide and fall on support resources and programs for addiction sufferers, Bridgeman said.
Murphy, who has been a clinical alcohol and drug counselor for 14 years and works with these kinds of programs, said that one of the important steps to alleviating the epidemic is treating the people who want help and who strive to get better. Being able to move abusers from an emergency clinic into a detox program and back on track with their lives is key to ending and preventing addiction, he said.
Supportive housing is an invaluable asset to recovering addicts, because students need a safe and secure space to start rebuilding their lives. Murphy said that doctors and medication can end the direct problem of substance dependency, but the path to addiction, the external problems people face that lead them to abusing drugs are difficult to fix if individuals do not have a stable base from which to do that.
Reducing stigma and getting individuals connected with the resources to help them are vital to stopping the epidemic, according to the speakers. Promoting an open conversation and engaging the problem objectively will help users find solutions and give drug addiction victims the opportunity to live fulfilling lives.
“People in recovery don’t make the news,” Murphy said. “People who are engaged in active addiction make the news. And sadly what happens is that adds to the stigma.”
The Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) sponsored the event through its Health and Wellness Committee. The committee works to benefit the general health of the student body by promoting mental health, ending sexual violence and preventing drug and alcohol abuse. RUSA provided funding for the town hall.
The Rutgers chapter of the APhA-ASP consists of approximately 120 students from the School of Pharmacy. The organization sponsors various events and programs on campus, such as Pharmacy Career Day. The organization also has several initiatives that seek to promote health in the community, such as Operation Immunization and Operation Diabetes. Rutgers APhA-ASP is currently run by an executive board of 10 members and is overseen by Donna Feudo, assistant dean for experiential education for the School of Pharmacy.