Our Pilleve team had the opportunity to meet the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, during his talk about the opioid epidemic for Pew Charitable Trust. He drew on his experience mitigating substance abuse in Indiana to share lessons on how to solve public health issues. In Indiana, he worked with sheriffs and community organizers to set up a syringe exchange program so that people using substances could avoid spreading infection. Recounting his experience, he described how coordinating with community leaders that families already trust, rather than mandating programs as an outsider, is much more effective.
Dr. Adams also gave us a poignant reminder about stigma. His brother is currently serving a ten year sentence in jail because he stole $200 to support his opioid addiction. While sharing his brother’s story, Dr. Adams concluded with: “The same family that raised him also raised the Surgeon General of the United States.” The audience nodded along, as this simple statement gave them profound clarity on the false basis for stigma. An often forgotten fact, the opioid epidemic crosses demographic boundaries and does not solely affect our misguided notion of an “unstable” family.
Most audience questions were solution-centric, seeking advice on mitigating the opioid crisis. One tactic Dr. Adams shared was to lift up those who are already fighting the battle. Nowadays, there is so much negative publicity about the opioid crisis that people are simply unaware of the current efforts to target it. Thus, he implored us to highlight those around us who are already implementing solutions, whether it be through news outlets or social media. At the conclusion of the talk, he even demonstrated for us what this behavior looks like: pulling out his phone, he videotaped a police officer describing how he saved someone’s life with naloxone.
Looping back to his story of working with community leaders in Indiana, he left us with his parting thought on how to solve the opioid crisis: form partnerships. Building relationships with law enforcement, the military, the medical and business community, faith leaders, and local officials is crucial in stemming the epidemic. While reaching out to these stakeholders, he emphasized the importance of listening, over telling. This allows you to serve communities as their equal, rather than help them as their superior.
Samhitha Sunkara is a rising Junior at Duke University. She is majoring in Economics and minoring in Computer Science. She is passionate about development economics and financial empowerment. On campus, she is involved with the Community Empowerment Fund, Duke Impact Investing Group, and Duke Women in Politics. In her free time, she dances on a Bhangra team and bullet journals. She is excited to be with Pilleve this summer and can't wait to explore D.C.!