Combating Opioid Addiction

Graduate School of Social Work Annual Community Day Focuses on Drug Crisis

December 05, 2019

More than 200 students, alumni and faculty members of Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) learned how to better combat opioid addiction during the school’s annual Community Day on November 19.

Community Day was organized by Allison Bobick, LCSW, director of GSSW’s Office of Student Advancement.

Touro GSSW Founding Dean Steven Huberman opened the event, noting that the school had just received two grants totaling $1.36 million to deal with the opioid epidemic. The grants are from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration (HRSA) and the National Council for Behavior Health; the grants will provide some tuition relief for GSSW graduates who are committed to working with individuals struggling with substance abuse. Guiding listeners through GSSW’s history, Dean Huberman described the efforts the school has made to alleviate problems in New York State, including GSSW’s efforts on behalf of veterans, the homeless, and the incarcerated. “Not only does Touro care, we mobilize,” stated Dean Huberman.

Continuing to the topic at hand, Dean Huberman spoke about Darwin Santana-Gonzalez, a one-year-old toddler from the Bronx who died through an accidental opioid overdose. Noting that the event occurred on the same date as the Gettysburg Address, Dean Huberman quoted from the address.

“Lincoln said we can only consecrate this area if we remember the dead because only when when we remember the dead will we be a nation under God, by the people, for the people, and we will not perish. This conference today is dedicated to those who have died from opioids… May their memory and Lincoln’s words be a blessing.”

Touro College and University System President Alan Kadish, MD, explained the Jewish position on helping those in need. “We believe that we are commanded to not stand by when our neighbor is in distress,” said Dr. Kadish. “Those of us who have the resources must make a difference… We won’t single-handedly save the country, but we are committed to making a difference.”

Keynote speaker Arlene González-Sánchez, MS, LMSW, Commissioner of New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), discussed the manifold efforts the state has launched to help stem the tide of casualties, including assembling mobile treatment units, developing community outreach, and promoting the widespread use of NARCAN, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

“Far too many New Yorkers are dying,” said González-Sánchez. “We’re not waiting for people to come to us, we are meeting people where they are.”

Daniel Rosa, MD, an addiction medicine specialist, spoke next, leading participants on a more personal journey. He grew up in a troubled area in the Bronx and witnessed the cumulative effects of poverty, gangs and crime that lead to drug addiction. “Addiction is a brain disease, it’s not a moral failing,” said Dr. Rosa. Noting the more than 40,000 opioid-related deaths in the US each year, Dr. Rosa took issue with the term “crisis.” “This isn’t a crisis,” he said. “This is a catastrophe. This is an apocalypse.”

The final speaker James Hollywood, LCSW, an assistant professor at GSSW and Vice President of Residential Treatment at Samaritan Daytop Village, offered lessons on how social workers can combat the addiction and the stigma of addiction. He discussed his own work using harm reduction techniques during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  “When we meet people where they are, when we offer them a moment to pause, accept them for who they are in that moment, we are offering them an opportunity to think about change,” said Hollywood. “That’s our role… We empower them by allowing them to discover their own power.”

A brief Q and A followed the program. One participant asked about whether her mother could use opioids to treat chronic pain. “Opioids were never made to treat chronic pain,” answered Dr. Rosa, who recommended seeking out alternative treatment options.

GSSW student Christina Logel said that she knows people suffering from addiction who are hesitant to receive treatment because of the stigma attached to addiction “I think it’s really important to work on changing the stigma about addiction,” said Logel.

GSSW student Jenny Egalit is currently working with the Juvenile Delinquent Services and drew parallels between what she sees during her work and Dr. Rosa’s experience. “There are so many factors in addiction,” she said. “Drugs, violence and incarceration all play a role.”

GSSW student Amber Cooper, who plans on going into addiction treatment, called it very informative and reflected on a point made by a speaker. “It’s incredibly important that we talk about our clients as people who have addictions, instead of ‘addicts,’” said Cooper. “Our clients are much, much more than their addictions.”