Pills on a table

People in the United States are now more likely to die of an accidental opioid overdose than a car crash. Photo by iStock.

The Boston College School of Social Work has received nearly $80,000 from RIZE Massachusetts, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to ending the opioid epidemic in the state.

The grant will enable a select group of students to complete paid internships at organizations that focus on keeping opioid users safe and alive until they are ready to seek treatment. 

Over the next two years, up to 10 students will learn the ins and outs of a public health strategy that aims to decrease the negative effects of opioid use. The primary goal of the approach, known as harm reduction, is to lessen the risk of overdose and decrease the transmission of blood borne viruses caused by intravenous drug use.

Common practices include giving drug users clean needles, offering supervised consumption sites, and distributing naloxone, a medicine that can reduce overdoses. 

“Years ago, it was all about abstinence and sobriety,” said Susan Coleman, assistant dean of field education, who helped create the grant proposal. “But that’s not attainable and it’s not realistic in the world in which we live.”

“Harm reduction is a much more freeing model,” she added. “It takes the shame out of relapse, decreases the stigma of drug use, and increases the amount of clinicians who can do this important work.”

President Biden has embraced the strategy, allocating $30 million to harm reduction services in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. 

Driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, drug overdose deaths spiked during the pandemic. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 88,000 Americans died from drug overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in August, a 27 percent increase from the previous year. And opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts reached new levels in 2020, climbing to 2,104 fatalities from the previous peak of 2,102 in 2016.

Coleman said that the school is in the process of selecting the first group of students for the program and finalizing field placements for the 2021-2022 academic year. As overdoses continue to increase in Black and Latinx populations, the school is working to promote the internships to students who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. 

The approach aligns with the school’s commitment to training students who reflect the demographics of the people they serve. The Latinx Leadership Initiative, which launched in 2013, has graduated more than 150 students who have gone on to work with Latinx clients in places like law clinics, public schools, and hospitals. The Black Leadership Initiative, which will start this fall, will prepare students to tackle some of the biggest problems facing Black communities.

“There’s a very big push to increase representation of BIPOC clinicians in the areas of substance use disorders and harm reduction,” said Coleman. “Our goal is to ground students in areas of practice where there’s a huge need and improve the representation of the clinicians providing that care.”

The principles of harm reduction are taught in two courses—“Substance Use Disorders” and “Public Health Social Work.” But Coleman said the school has created an advisory group to further integrate the strategy into the curriculum and plans to hire a program coordinator to design topical seminars for the students. Starting in the spring, the school will introduce an online course that focuses on the causes, prevention, and treatment of opioid misuse. 

The work is urgent: People in the United States are now more likely to die of an accidental opioid overdose than a car crash, and one in 10 Americans has misused drugs at some point in their lives. 

“You may not have a problem, but someone you love or work with probably does,” said Coleman. “We need to make sure everybody has the foundational skills to help reduce the harm caused by opioids.”