This year’s Brain Awareness Week sparks difficult conversations about opioids and addiction
On Tuesday, the Center for Research in Science (CRIS) hosted the first of its two-part event series for Brain Awareness Week, a national week devoted to learning more about the human brain, how it works and what affects it. It usually takes place in late March and is celebrated by numerous universities in the U.S.
Entitled “The Opioid Diaries,” the event was named after the series of short documentary-style videos produced and published by TIME Magazine.
“Everywhere I turn, it’s the opioid crisis,” said Louise Huang, CRIS director and assistant dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I personally hope that students and participants or attendees will walk away feeling more informed, and as a result, they can make informed decisions.”
Bill Fiala, Ph.D, associate dean of students, was originally set to moderate the event; however, due to an engagement conflict, the event was moderated by Curtis Lehmann, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor.
Lehmann, a licensed clinical psychologist, worked in a methadone clinic in the past and has first-hand experience dealing with opioid addicts.
“I’m hoping for an emotional impact to help people gain compassion for people with addiction,” Lehmann said. “To realize the lived experience of people who are either facing addiction or who have been impacted by it second hand and to really bring a face to something that feels very abstract.”
Lehmann said although he does not believe many students at APU personally struggle with opioid addiction, many may be impacted by it through a family member or friend’s addiction. He said when he asked one of his classes if any of his students knew someone who had died of an overdose, four people raised their hands.
“It’s definitely impacting them indirectly,” Lehmann said. “Of course, I’m not ignorant that it could affect them [personally] either while they’re at APU or after.”
The viewing for “The Opioid Diaries” also included discussions among people in attendance. After each video was shown, the audience was given time to reflect and discuss what they had seen. One of the most passionate responses came from a video entitled “Born In Withdrawal,” about a woman named Jennifer Mosher, who was addicted to heroin.
According to the film, Mosher was taking heroin before she knew she was pregnant. Like other heroin-addicted mothers, Mosher was told the best course of action for her and her baby was to go on methadone.
According to a review in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Methadone maintenance therapy for chronic pain and substance withdrawal is currently the accepted standard treatment for opioid-dependent pregnant women.”
Without going on methadone, Mosher and women like her have higher chances of falling back into their old habits, putting both themselves and their babies in danger. On methadone, however, they can curb their urges and resist the urge to take the drugs more than if they did not take it.
Some audience members expressed concern for the baby in the video, asking whether that child would be dependant on methadone forever or whether the mom would need to take it for the rest of her life.
According to Lehmann and comments made in the TIME video, the babies do not stay addicted to the methadone but have to go through a withdrawal process after being born, which causes them pain and immense discomfort. The mother’s response can be different, however.
A nursing student asked what the goal of methadone ultimately was.
“The goal is always individualized … I’ve encountered people who have successfully tight traded off methadone and lived medication-free lives, and I celebrate that,” Lehmann said. “But I [also] celebrate people who are on methadone for life.”
The other topic that sparked interested was about a video regarding AHOPE Needle Exchange, which is an organization that collects and disposes used needles and provides clean needles to those in need.
There is controversy here in knowing that many of the people receiving these needles are heroin addicts. Some see this as enabling addiction, while others believe it is about keeping people safe. Sarah Mackin, director of AHOPE Needle Exchange, called her organization “the black sheep of public health.”
Lehmann ended the event by offering a Christian view on addiction and giving advice for how Christian communities should proceed.
“The model of Christ serves as a model for how we should interact with people with addiction,” Lehmann said. “Christians should support people with addictions, making an effort to lead them out of their slavery … remaining caring and faithful even during their times of struggle and backtracking.”