Statewide Opioid Overdose Prevention Study Introduced to Public
At an event in Low Library, Columbia scientists showed their passion for applying their expertise to the problem of opioid overdose deaths throughout New York State.
In 2017, 130 people died each day in the United States due to opioid overdose. Of the 47,600 opioid overdose deaths across the country that year, more than 8 percent (3,920) were in New York State—a dramatic increase over the past decade.
University Professor Nabila El-Bassel delivered these statistics on the morning of Monday, November 18, to an audience of more than 200 people who had gathered in Low Library (nearly 80 more were on Livestream). They had gathered in hopes of hearing more about Columbia’s involvement in the NIH-funded HEALing Communities study. News has spread far and wide of El-Bassel’s receipt of an $86 million grant—the largest NIH grant in Columbia University’s history—to establish a research site in New York State that aims to lower the number of opioid-overdose deaths by 40 percent in over three years. At the same time, the NIH has funded research teams in Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Ohio.
El-Bassel informed the Low audience that her team comprises scientists from a wide range of disciplines. From within Columbia, she has recruited faculty from the School of Social Work, the Data Science Institute, Columbia Psychiatry, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Also on the team are leading scientists from major medical institutions and universities on the East Coast.
By combining the expertise of social workers, public health researchers, data scientists, psychiatrists, and medical researchers, El-Bassel said the team plans to deliver a wide array of evidence-based interventions—including opioid overdose prevention and education, naloxone distribution, access to medication for opioid use disorder, outreach for those without access to care, and safe prescribing and dispensing—in 16 of the New York State’s most heavily affected counties.
She added that the team was already building collaborative partnerships with the New York State Governor’s Office, statewide agencies such as the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, and key personnel in the 16 counties. During the summer, they had convened a Community Advisory Board (CAB)—made up of government officials, service providers, and community members with lived experience of drug addiction—to help guide the study.
Following El-Bassel’s remarks, Maia Szalavitz, journalist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction led an impassioned discussion among four Columbia scientists involved in the study: Frances Levin from Columbia Psychiatry; Louisa Gilbert of the School of Social Work; Katherine Keyes of the Mailman School of Public Health; and Smaranda Muresan of the Data Science Institute.
Levin, who heads the Division of Substance Use Disorders at Columbia, emphasized that opioid use often has a mental health aspect that can be treated by medications. “There’s this incredible bias that somehow being on medications is not part of recovery,” she said. “And in my opinion, it is absolutely a part of the recovery process and it changes people’s lives.”
Other panelists said that one of the challenges in designing such a large-scale public health intervention is the need to acknowledge that not all communities are the same—thus that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate.
“People in our communities have been doing a tremendous amount of work already,” Gilbert said. Her specialty in implementation science provides the project a means of quality control. “We will look at the adaptations and modifications communities make in order to adopt it,” she explained.
Understanding the differences between each community means speaking with and listening to the members of those communities directly, panelists said. Katherine Keyes of the Mailman School of Public Health said she will be collecting community-level data to develop a model to account for the ways different communities adopt interventions. Smaranda Muresan from the Data Science Institute described how she is coding data that she mines in social media—particularly, Reddit, where those affected by opioid addiction have formed communities for exchanging stories as well as news of each other’s struggles.
The panelists were joined by Bethany Medley, a 2017 alumna of the School of Social Work with lived experience of addiction. Medley is a member of the HEALing Communities’ CAB and also teaches courses at the School of Social Work in harm reduction. “I’ve lost count of how many friends who have died of an overdose,” she told the audience. “The saddest part about that is that all of their deaths were completely preventable.”
Likewise, Szalvitz spoke candidly of her own struggle with addiction, which had led to her writings on this topic, as did several audience members during the Q & A.
Reminding the audience that death from overdose is hardly a new crisis in the United States, Szalvitz pointed out that when many people, especially people of color, died from crack cocaine overdoses in the 1980s, they were punished for their addiction. But, although racial dynamics had played a role in the failure of previous government responses to drug epidemics, the four scientists on the panel, along with El-Bassel, seemed united in the belief that this time it would be different. Since funding is now available, scientists like themselves at last have an opportunity to build a public health model to treat addiction. That kind of outcome will benefit everyone, they insisted, regardless of race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
- Columbia’s HEALing Communities Study Holds First Community Advisory Board Meeting (10.23.19 news article + video)
- Columbia University’s School of Social Work Is Awarded $86 Million Grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to Reduce Opioid Deaths in New York State (4.18.19 news article)
- Social Intervention Group Joins the HEAL Initiative and Will Address Opioid Epidemic in New York State (12.21.18 news article)
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