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In Search of Answers to the Opioid Epidemic

November 20, 2017

A woman stands on Kensington Ave. in one of photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge's portraits of a community struggling through the opioid epidemic. Stockbridge's work can be found at
A woman stands on Kensington Ave. in one of photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge's portraits of a community struggling through the opioid epidemic. Stockbridge's work can be found at

Complex problems require complex solutions, and few problems in recent American history have been as complex as the opioid epidemic that continues to ravage the country, killing nearly 200 people every day. In an effort to find solutions and to better understand how the epidemic escalated, Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences on Nov. 15 hosted a dean’s seminar with an interdisciplinary panel of thinkers tangling with the knotty questions at the heart of the epidemic.

The panel was moderated by Charles H. Ramsey, the former Philadelphia Police commissioner and distinguished visiting fellow in the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, who opened by citing the harrowing statistics: the 64,070 Americans who died from overdoses last year were more than died in the peak year of the Vietnam War, or in the peak year for deaths caused by suicide, homicide, HIV or car accidents.

“We still don’t think it can happen to us or someone we know, because we don’t believe addiction is a disease,” said Angela Colistra, PhD, assistant clinical professor of behavioral health counseling in the College of Nursing and Health Professions. “We think of it as a moral failing.”

But, the panelists agreed, the problem goes far beyond that. Addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such. As David DeMatteo, JD, associate professor of law and psychology in the Thomas R. Kline School of Law, said, drug dependence “should be thought of as a chronic relapsing medical condition.”

“If you look at the needs of people who are struggling with this addiction, it’s not so simple as just ‘stop doing drugs,’” DeMatteo said. “It’s a systemic context that’s set up to promote this addiction and it’s not going to stop without a multi-modal response.”

The context he was referring to is what he called the “perfect storm” of conditions that created the epidemic: pharmaceutical companies pushing their pain-killing medications on the public, heightened overdose risk caused by drug users with rapidly increasing tolerance and a challenging economy leading more people to turn to drugs in the first place, among other factors.

For Jeffrey Stockbridge, BS photography ’05, whose website Kensington Blues has for years documented the lives of residents in the North Philadelphia neighborhood struggling mightily through the opioid epidemic, there are important questions that often go unasked and unanswered.

“Why are these people trying to numb themselves? What’s happening in the country right now?” Stockbridge said. “It’s a really difficult time to be alive and there are a lot of sensitive people who might not want to admit how sensitive they are.”

Nobody wakes up and chooses the lifestyle of an addict, he said. They are faced with a health problem, and, with that in mind, the focus among the many people trying to quell the epidemic should be “harm reduction.”

“We need to focus interdisciplinary attention on the management of pain and helping people through their stories, through their traumas, to the other side of that without a pain prescription,” Colistra said.

Rather than that type of patient-focused approach, America has primarily attempted to address addiction through punishment, dating back to the beginning of the War on Drugs under President Nixon, said Jordan Hyatt, PhD, JD, assistant professor of criminology in the College of Arts and Sciences. But, he said, “this isn’t the kind of problem you can arrest your way out of,” and there is a growing understanding that a new approach is needed.

“There is the beginning of a recognition that the criminal justice system is not the hammer for this particular nail,” Hyatt said.

DeMatteo suggested “therapeutic jurisprudence,” a way of using the law as an agent of change, rather than a weapon for punishment, by steering users down a rehabilitative path involving the treatment of their addiction.

It will take a monumental effort to reverse the epidemic’s course, but, as DeMatteo noted, the silver lining is that so many people with professional and lived experience are now coming together looking for ways to fix the problem, hoping to see people caught in the middle come out clean on the other end.

“I’m focusing my work right now in that direction: Telling stories of recovery,” Stockbridge said.