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National Recovery Month: Reflections on how to educate, act, contribute and effect change amid our nation’s opioid crisis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cordula Robinson is a professor at Northeastern University, a GRI Faculty Affiliate, and a professional in the geospatial field offering extensive research experience in spatial science with an emphasis on applications pertaining to the human-condition and welfare.

The opioid and heroin epidemic causes pain and strife in the lives of many Americans. There is immense emotional, physical, and financial toll associated. Many people are directly impacted or know of someone who is. This year, on opioid awareness day, there were 1,909 small, purple flags on the front lawn of the Walker Building in Marlborough, MA. Each flag represents a person who died to an overdose in Massachusetts in 2017 alone. Hopefully, there will be fewer next year. It is disturbing that more than 72,000 Americans died this way last year. Rebound, recovery and resilience are still mercy words.

The harsh reality of the heroin and opioid crisis inspires varying local and nationwide initiatives. The urgency is such that people are doing what they can, with the expertise they have, to help fight the catastrophe. Approaches vary ranging from  traditional methods such as replacement drugs, and physician’s risk assessment tools, to less conventional ones, such as sewage sensors to obtain a pulse on the pervasiveness of substance use disorder within neighborhoods; to short films (e.g. Dear You) that encourage multi-angle discussion and dialog; and a New America Opioid Mapping Initiative offering a data bank and suite of apps in a collaborative, coordinated effort to help local government agencies share insights and use data to visualize the nation’s ongoing crisis.  Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, in whichever way, reduces feelings of futility. Honoring unfinished lives lost, and acting however small or large, is a possible beginning to the end of an epidemic that embodies suffering, tragedy, adversity, and death. Awareness, education, pharmaceutical responsibility, funding, mental health availability and affordable accessible treatment are all necessary to curb the calamity and increase the number of those in the process of recovery.

The Global Resilience Institute supports community research initiatives to stop the epidemic through interdisciplinary approaches. One team brings together inter-disciplinary faculty with backgrounds in evidence-based research in health disparities and addictions; geospatial data science and analytical modeling; social capital and network analysis; and healthcare management and community partnership. The team’s goals are to identify vulnerable, also strong, communities and associated social interactions, then identify parameters that contribute to or reduce abuse, ultimately to facilitate rebuilding of social bonds by sharing tools, recommendations, and educational initiatives. Approaches begin by using  population-based, data-driven approaches to identify opportunities for prevention and intervention. Such data-driven solutions offer rigor and impartiality to complement institutional knowledge, and public comment that involve experience and familiarity with the areas involved. Data mining can focus attention on areas historically underrepresented and overlooked, thus align with Northeastern’s call for robot-proof strategies for humanics.

data-driven approaches for community resilience initiatives

Once opportunities for intervention are made clear, social capital of those areas can be identified. Social capital may assist with reducing social stigma and provide empowerment opportunities for the addicted individual. Embeddedness in a supportive pro-social network – represented by family members, non-drug-using friends, and friends who have recovered from drug addiction – can make individuals feel more accepted by the community. Appraising resources available to individuals via interpersonal ties and institutional connections, including bonding, bridging, and linking components, is a helpful framework to identify “disaster” recovery needs. To tackle the heroin and opioid crisis, the team’s approach will map the social connections between addicted individuals and others who are emotionally close to them (bonding), their acquaintances or individuals loosely connected (bridging), and the ties to those in power (linking). Established community partnerships that consider the uniqueness of various MA neighborhoods, cities and towns, can subsequently be solicited, for example, by considering the accessibility to ongoing addiction treatment services. Partnerships are a touchstone for this work. They facilitate programs and essential connections to be leveraged in community-based intervention initiatives. This team will begin to deepen such connections by assembling a local community advisory board this Fall in a focus group setting.

So as the United States enters National Recovery Month, let us pause and reflect on how we can continue to educate, how we can act, how we can contribute, and how we can help effect change. Let us remember that with breath comes life, and with life comes hope, and the possibility to stand beside individuals in recovery. Let us aspire to rebound, recover and become more resilient as a nation otherwise still gripped by this crisis.