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We cover a lot of important policy topics at APPAM—this one on the opioid crisis is particularly meaningful | APPAM Leadership Blog Series

Welcome to the APPAM Leadership Blog Series! Each month you will hear from our Executive Director, President or President-Elect, providing APPAM membership a behind-the-scenes look at how APPAM operates and how you can be more involved. Our authors will introduce new initiatives, discuss current policy topics and share resources they value. 

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Stagner,_160x160by Tara Sheehan, APPAM Executive Director

I know a lot about opioids. More than your average joe, anyway. As an idealistic college grad in the late 1990’s, I was positive that social work was the path for me. I wanted to get some direct service experience, then go into an Masters of Social Work program and go about my merry way, trying to make a difference in the world.

My first stop was a methadone clinic in Harlem, NY. It was quite eye-opening for someone with no direct experience with drugs or drug addiction. I was a counselor for a caseload of 30 patients at the clinic for almost 3 years. As any social worker can tell you, the work is hard and often sad, the successes are few and the instances of burnout are frequent.

But what struck me most during my time at the clinic was how virtually impossible opioid use is to compartmentalize. Opioid users don’t use socially or occasionally, and they can’t maintain other areas of their lives.  Opioid addiction is the only thing that matters and every facet of an addict’s life—family, health, safety, employment, financial security—is negatively impacted, often disastrously.  

I remember thinking that what we—as direct service providers—needed most, wasn’t what federal, state or local government was prescribing. There wasn’t widespread understanding at the time that opioid addiction could (and did) happen to anyone, there was frequent debate about the benefits of harm reduction (methadone clinics and needle exchanges then, Naloxone now) and there certainly wasn’t much sympathy for chronic users.  

Fast forward almost two decades and the current opioid crisis makes the late 90’s look like a cakewalk. Prescription opioids changed the landscape profoundly but so did coverage of the crisis. When local communities show images of parents passed out from opioid use in a car with babies in car seats and the crawl on the evening news tells the viewer that more people die each day from an overdose, almost more than car accidents and gun deaths combined, it gets attention.

APPAM is holding an institutional member forum on opioids, with the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Policy Bridge on May 1. The forum, “State and Research University Partnerships in the Opioid Crisis” will be held on Duke’s campus. What’s interesting about the forum is the focus on partnerships, particularly those at the state and university level and how sharing information and working together might help bring this epidemic under control. We’re looking at the crisis through four lenses: support services for families and children, how data sharing is working, treatment after overdose, and underserved and rural communities. There will be experts leading breakouts on the four areas mentioned above, as well as opening and closing plenaries. Registration is free and the event will be livestreamed.  

We are still laying out the agenda and speaking with breakout leaders to get their sense of the crisis, where the research is leading us and how policy has and will be impacted. What I found noteworthy in speaking to our participants in this forum is the lack of a formal mechanism for sharing information between local, state and federal government on opioid use. Development of an infrastructure and processes that allow data and information to flow freely is hard to create but imperative to solving a problem like this.     

I can’t imagine what being a direct service provider would be like now. There are some many people that need help and resources are in short supply.

After being so sure that social work was the field for me, the methadone clinic (and the women’s shelter after it), convinced me that studying policy and research was more what I was interested in. We cover a lot of important policy research and issues at APPAM—but this one is particularly meaningful. I hope we have record attendance at the APPAM/Duke Forum and I hope even more people catch the livestream. The only way we’re going to get a handle on this crisis is to talk about it and create opportunities for the people that are working on solving it to talk to each other, share resources and learn from one another. As much and as often as possible.


Tara Sheehan, APPAM Executive Director

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