Hampshire HOPE/UMass Amherst collaboration aims to ‘stop the stigma, save a life’

Published: 3/29/2019 1:29:31 PM

To understand why the opioid overdose epidemic should be of concern to everyone who studies, teaches, works or lives on a college campus, consider these statistics from an alarming New York Times report in November: Accidental drug overdose is the number one cause of death of people under 55. Nearly 66 percent of those deaths were caused by opioids.

Complicating the picture is another startling finding from a 2015 survey commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy and The Christie Foundation that asked 1,200 college-age people about their perceptions and use of opioids. The survey found that college-age youth report prescription pain medications are plentiful and easy to get — and that they do not fully comprehend the deadly dangers of prescription opioids.

A Hampshire HOPE/University of Massachusetts Amherst collaboration aims to change that situation on the state’s flagship campus by preparing students to take concrete actions that save lives. The initiative educates students and those who work with students in their residence halls on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug use and overdose, and provides them with resources and steps to take to help someone. In the process, students can be a part of the solution to decrease substance misuse and reduce overdose deaths.

“It is critical that college students understand that they are well positioned to save a life and that the opioid epidemic affects everyone,” said UMass College of Nursing Clinical Assistant Professor Kimberly Dion.

On Jan. 15, more than 150 UMass student resident advisors who staff the residence halls across campus participated in an hour-long “Stop the Stigma, Save a Life” opioid prevention presentation, one of several trainings that have taken place on the UMass campus since September.

The sessions teach students how to administer Narcan, the life-saving overdose reversal drug, and about the harm caused by stigma around people suffering from substance use disorders.

“We hope to spark a culture change by increasing understanding and compassion for people in the midst of their struggle with substances,” said Dion, one of the trainers.

UMass Police Lt. David White initiated the project by pulling together experts to address the opioid epidemic in a college context. The team included Dion, other nursing faculty, students, staff and administrators from University Health Services, community leaders and law enforcement.

By focusing on prevention, education and support for people with substance use disorders, Dion said, the project will empower students to be a part of the solution to the opioid epidemic.

White believes it is possible to foster a campus culture in which students will take action in the event of a suspected opioid overdose.

“I want students to feel comfortable calling 911 and knowing they will not get in trouble,” he said. “Our main priority is to save lives and get people the help they need.”

The presentation educates students about the statewide Good Samaritan law, which protects people who overdose as well as bystanders from arrest for drug possession, with the goal of eliminating fear as a barrier to people summoning emergency help.

Students also hear about protections within the UMass Medical Amnesty Policy, which holds that when students seek emergency medical help for someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol, neither the caller nor the student under the influence will be charged with student conduct or residence hall community standards violations.

In addition to educating students about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose, presentations teach life-saving measures such as rescue breathing and putting someone in a rescue position. Students also learn about campus and local resources available to help someone dealing with substance use issues, and participants can leave with a dose of Narcan supplied by Hampshire HOPE. Narcan is also available at University Health Services and other pharmacies in the community.

A major goal of the initiative is to decrease stigma through language change, as encouraged by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. For example, rather than stigmatizing and stereotypical words like “addict” or “junkie” or “druggie,” students are taught to use compassionate terms such as “person with substance use disorder.”

UHS Associate Director Jeanne Ryan knows from personal experience the importance of such shifts in perspective.

“When my sister died in 2007 from a heroin overdose, she had already experienced years of stigma and shame, and referred to herself as nothing but a druggie,” Ryan said. “I can imagine what that made her feel about herself.”

Dion said it is crucial to drive home the point that addiction is a chronic disease, much like diabetes or heart disease, that can happen in any family. She said it is a tragedy if stigma prevents people and their families from getting the help they need.

Ann Becker, a UMass Amherst public health nurse and faculty member in the College of Nursing, and Caitlin Healy, a graduate nursing student, are part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of Northampton’s Health Department.

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