The Opiate Epidemic: Rutgers Program Plays Role Fighting Escalating Health Crisis

The Opiate Epidemic: Rutgers Program Plays Role Fighting Escalating Health Crisis

Summer School of Addiction Studies has been educating addiction and behavioral health professionals for nearly 75 years

Noelle Jensen, senior coordinator of the Summer School of Addiction Studies, with Pam Nickisher, who has participated in the program for the last nine years.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

'Professionals need to have an understanding of the issues in order to meet clients where they are and to share best practices that could help stem the growing tide of opiate addiction that is killing more people in New Jersey than car accidents.'
 
– Noelle Jensen, senior project coordinator, Summer School of Addiction Studies

Rutgers’ Summer School of Addiction Studies
 
The Summer School of Alcohol Studies (the predecessor of “addiction studies”) began at Yale in 1943, as part of what would become Yale University’s Center of Alcohol Studies. In the 19 years the school was held at Yale, more than 3600 students participated in the program.
 
Graduates were instrumental in forming state alcohol commissions, and by the late1940s one of the school’s primary objectives was to reform alcohol education in public schools, many of which had not updated their curricula since Prohibition.
 
When the center and school were moved to Rutgers in 1962, the curriculum was revised to provide more specialized training and it became known as the Summer School of Addiction Studies. The school continues to be a respected source of research and training for professionals in the alcohol and drug addiction field.
 

 

Pam Nickisher started using heroin and opiates as a teenager, cycling between periods of being drug free and relapsing for much of her young adult life.

“There were long periods when I was clean,” says Nickisher, 46. “I graduated from Rutgers’ Douglass College and Rutgers Law School – I did well.”

But addiction kept pulling her back.

Today the criminal investigator turned alcohol and drug counselor has been substance free for six years. She is a specialist at an addiction treatment facility in New Brunswick and founder of 7Seeds Yoga, a nonprofit company that uses yoga to help those recovering from trauma-related and substance abuse disorders.

“It wasn’t until I faced up to and deal with my experience as a trauma survivor -- the physical violence I was exposed to as a child – that I could develop coping skills to lead a healthy  life,” said Nickisher, who recently lectured on the benefits of yoga during recovery at Rutgers’ Summer School of Addiction Studies (SSAS), a weeklong continuing education program offered by the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers-University New Brunswick.

Approximately 170 addiction and behavioral health professionals from across the U.S., Canada, Poland and Bermuda attended this year’s SSAS conference, held July 10-15 at the Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center in New Brunswick.

The summer school, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, offers participants dozens of courses, lectures and workshops on the topic of addiction, prevention and recovery, plus the ability to earn up to 50 continuing education credits and mingle with people from diverse professional backgrounds – from alcohol and drug treatment counselors to teachers, psychologists and social workers to physicians, clergy, court and police representatives.

This year’s program, “Today’s Climate: Today’s Practice,” gave special focus to the abuse of and addiction to opioids -- heroin, morphine and prescription painkillers – which has become a national epidemic.

Opioid addiction is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, taking 28,893 lives nationally in 2014 – 19,893 from prescription painkillers and 10,574 from heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The heroin death rate in New Jersey is three times the national rate.

“As a nation, we are in the midst of a lot of darkness.The opioid epidemic continues to progress, social justice issues confront our clients, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community continue to occur, sexual assaults against women are dismissed on a daily basis," said Noelle Jensen, senior project coordinator for the Summer School of Addiction Studies. “Professionals need to have an understanding of the issues in order to meet clients where they are – and to share evidence-based best practices that could help stem the growing tide of opiate addiction that is killing more people in New Jersey than car accidents.”

Conference highlights included the keynote speaker, John Kelly, the Elizabeth R. Spallin Associate Professor of Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who gave a talk titled “The Protective Wall of Human Community: The New Science on Recovery Mutual Help Organizations” and addressed the need to reduce stigma and discrimination among individual suffering from addiction. Other speakers included:

  • Frank L. Greenagel Jr., an addiction specialist affiliated with Rutgers’  School of Social Work, who discussed how Big Pharma, doctors, insurance companies,  the market, the FDA, government policies and consumers each hold responsibility for the epidemic
  • Stephen Stirling, a reporter with NJ Advance media, whose yearlong investigation – “Herointown” – revealed the scale of the heroin problem in New Jersey
  • Alexis LaPietra, a physician whose “ALTO Program” offers a alternatives, such as trigger point injections and nitrous oxide, to prescribing opiates for pain.

Additional discussions centered on the link between trauma and opiate addiction, programs that distribute sterile syringes to injection drug users and naloxone training to reverse a heroin and opioid overdose. There was even a showing by Anthony Tobia, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the 1984 film Purple Rain, which introduced Prince as a rising rock performer. During the movie, Tobia and several RWJMS medical school students provided commentary via Twitter on aspects of the partially autobiographical film that provided the early origins of the performer's dependence on prescription pain medication.

John Epperly, a drug counselor at Mary’s Hospital in Passiac County, has been coming to SSAS conferences since the 1990s. “I learn something new every day … the instructors are stars in this field. They consult all over the world.”

Jensen said that participants form strong bonds at the conference. “SSAS provides an intensive format for learning,” said Jensen. “Instructors are with students not only in courses but throughout the week at meals and evening activities. They play a strong mentoring role, but it can go the other way too. Everyone brings their different lens and they add to the collective knowledge about the field.”