Opioid, alcohol, and other drug misuse and disorders place a tremendous strain on families, workplaces, communities, and health care systems. In 2016, overdoses involving opioids killed more than 42,000 people in the United States, and that number has only increased since. Women often suffer the consequences of substance misuse disorders the most, either because of associated mental health problems and/or self-medicating because of the trauma.  

Treating the person, not the problem

Shannon Spurlock has dedicated more than 25 years to reducing the effects of behavioral health challenges on communities, families, and individuals. Growing up in West Virginia, she witnessed how poverty and resulting hopelessness increased susceptibility to opioid and other substance misuse. Shannon’s upbringing led her to approach her work with compassion and optimism.

Shannon Spurlock

Shannon Spurlock

Often, Shannon notes, the focus of recovery is on the substance use disorder or mental health diagnosis, instead of people’s experience. Peer recovery, however, focuses on people and helping each other identify a path to recovery. Shannon is a strong advocate of the power of recovery and the benefit of people who have lived through it supporting those who still struggle.

One project examining this approach is the Emergency Department–Recovery Coach (ED-RC) Pilot Evaluation, which helps gather real-time data from peer recovery coaches posted in 11 emergency rooms in Massachusetts. Focus groups with the coaches revealed that in addition to helping people who have overdosed, working with others who have substance use disorders helps their own recovery. The emergency department is a high-intensity setting and talking with people as they are released from emergency care (whether they continue to use or are on the way to detox), informs the path to recovery for all parties, says Shannon.

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Shannon, far right, and her Rhode Island Prevention Resource Center colleagues.

Feeling nothing is better than feeling pain

Women who have substance use disorders are at higher risk of HIV yet are disproportionately underserved. Through the Rhode Island HIV Evaluation Project, Shannon worked with incarcerated women and commercial sex workers and found that despite their mental health challenges and trauma histories, they were unable to access treatment. The women fell into self-destructive behaviors in an attempt to treat themselves by numbing their pain or even intentionally seeking arrest because prison was the one place they could get the care they needed.

Shannon believes that the system has failed these women and she is determined to continue to work for justice. Shannon’s vision and hope for women is reflected in Maya Angelou’s statement that “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”   

Encouraging engagement and collaboration

Priyanka Bhandari is a project associate for the Rhode Island Prevention Resource Center. The project supports agencies that work to mitigate substance misuse by increasing access to resources and knowledge-sharing between providers.

Priyanka Bhandari

Priyanka Bhandari

Priyanka’s interest in substance use prevention was sparked when she moved to New England, the area of the U.S. that is most affected by substance misuse, but it flourished when she came across an article about the opioid crisis in her parents’ home state of Punjab, India. This personalization led Priyanka to learn more about responses to the crisis, as she believes that the developed world’s public health problems are the future problems of developing countries.

Meanwhile, as the opioid crisis grows and begins to affect more groups of people in the U.S., Priyanka is helping to create interventions that appeal to diverse demographics. She has noticed that women, in particular, have the ability to look at a problem through a myriad of lenses, whether scientific or socioeconomic. Priyanka attributes this to women’s ability to grasp many abstract concepts and examine their relationships with each other, which helps them to assess and understand interpersonal dynamics.

Prevention Profile: Facing the Opioid Epidemic in Rhode Island

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On International Women’s Day and every day, we celebrate the achievements of women like Shannon Spurlock and Priyanka Bhandari who are helping to implement initiatives to prevent and reduce substance misuse and improve access to treatment and recovery support services.

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