Applying an “Equity Lens” for Opioid Use Prevention & Treatment Work

By Gwendolyn VanSant with Stephanie Wright of BRIDGE

As part of BRIDGE’s partnership with The Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative (BOAPC), our staff attended Recovery Coach Academy and other professional development and community health work sessions to fortify our cultural competence and gain up-to-date information in the field of recovery and substance use. In this article, Stephanie Wright, an educator/ BRIDGE facilitator/trainer and our Community Engagement Liaison, shares her reflections, and Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and Founding Director discusses the mission of BRIDGE, and the importance of applying a health equity lens to our work.

SW: Over Summer 2018, I attended the New England Institute of Addiction Studies at Worcester State University, and the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy at George B. Crane Memorial Center in Pittsfield. Both experiences were so positive — challenging my own thinking about opioid use, prevention, and treatment.

There were many lessons: The importance of letting go of shame, dehumanizing terms like “psycho” or “dope fiend” can cause harm, drug and alcohol addiction is a brain disease that requires professional treatment, not a moral failing.

There was a great deal of hope and respect in these classrooms as participants grappled with the challenges of the opioid crisis that have impacted families and communities.

Today’s science has proven that there are many approaches to recovery, and it is up to the person in recovery to decide which path to take. A “recovery coach” walks beside this person, not in front of or behind them.

I also learned about risk factors for youth: lack of parental supervision, drug availability, , and poverty. I also learned that after school activities, hobbies, spiritual connection, mentors, and social competence are all things that can help keep youth safe. From Dr. Staci Gruber’s keynote on the neuro-biology of addiction, I learned that when young people use substances to cope, they incur brain damage since the prefrontal lobe in the brain has not fully developed.

We cannot make assumptions about young people; we must ask questions, listen, and show empathy. Young people need pro-social, strength-based activities that promote happiness and reduce stress–all the more reason to invest in community-based programs that support youth, like BRIDGE.

As a nonprofit dedicated to advancing equity and justice in all Berkshire communities and beyond, BRIDGE’s role in the BOAPC coalition focuses on its efforts to engage diverse communities in discussions of public health, opiate use, prevention, addiction, harm reduction, recovery and prevention. For the past five years, BRIDGE has worked to reduce stereotypes and stigma around opioid use and other substance use and health equity issues. In 2018, our CEO and Founding Director Gwendolyn VanSant spoke at Policy Link’s Equity Summit in Chicago and the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Summit at UMASS about our success organizing for rural health.

In working with under-heard, under-represented populations, applying an equity lens means centering the experience of those folks who are directly affected. Their knowledge, needs and experiences should be front and center–not the needs, remedies and goals of those who want to help. Equity means understanding how addiction is criminalized across race lines; over-policing in particular neighborhoods and disparities in sentencing reinforce structural inequities. It means understanding how women experience unique challenges around addiction as they often use substances as a way of aiming to live up to unrealistic images and expectations in movies and magazines.

What else does equity look like? We visit with newer immigrant populations and African American communities to discuss culturally relevant strategies of how to talk with children about substance use. We provide actors, translation, and cultural reviews for Community Health Coalition videos provided to families, and we translate BOAPC materials. We support coalition partners with BRIDGE’s cultural competence training.We include a segment on the culture of substance misuse, infusing cultural competency and empathy into everyday conversations. BOAPC has also supported teachers, students, and families with our Happiness Toolbox, a education program for children ages 5 to 15 that builds new positive behaviors.

We believe in this work because–like so many people in our country–Berkshire County is immersed in and dedicated to solving this problem. Our team members know what it is to be in recovery or have a family member with use, addiction, and recovery concerns. This perspective helps us bring an equity and inclusion lens to the challenge of the opioid epidemic as well as harm reduction.

BRIDGE is grateful for the mutual opportunity to share expertise and social networks to better improve the lives of individuals and families facing addiction and recovery.