Why It Matters
A team at Purdue University is engaging the community, developing resources, and breaking down stigma around opioid addiction.
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How Shared Stories Inspired a Stigma-Busting Program

By Emily Maegerlein | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

HowSharedStoriesInspiredAStigmaBustingProgramPurdue students gather at a BoilerWoRx event.

Can you tell us a bit about your project and what motivated your Chapter to start it?

The opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States. Purdue University sits in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where a 2016 community survey identified addiction services as a priority need. Our Chapter had the opportunity to come together with multiple groups across campus, including the new BoilerWoRx public health initiative, in shaping plans to target this problem locally through community outreach and campus education. We hoped to engage with and provide resources to those directly affected by addiction.

There was also clear alignment with the recently launched IHI Open School Recover Hope Campaign. We’re excited to be a part of that initiative and contribute to its overarching aims to raise awareness, promote prevention, and improve treatment of substance use disorders.

What key elements or experiences helped you successfully launch your project?

Our Chapter participated in IHI’s online course, Leadership and Organizing for Change, and immediately found ways to leverage the framework and tools we were learning each week – including the power of a strong story to rally a community to action. At a meeting with the Purdue University Chapter of the IHI Open School and other campus clubs, professors and students told stories about why they cared about combatting the opioid epidemic. These introductions were an opportunity for each of us to share our personal narrative, our “story of self,” and to begin developing a “story of us” about our shared motivations.

Additionally, the group discussed available resources and areas of need across our community. This knowledge was extremely useful to our Chapter and informed us of the specific barriers that our project may face. A main barrier to our work is the stigma and confusion associated with substance use disorders and with related interventions. For example, there is a misconception that needle exchange programs increase drug use, when in fact participants in these programs are five times as likely to enter a substance treatment program, according to the CDC. However, the Leadership and Organizing for Change course taught us the value of defining barriers to success and then determining strategies to overcome them. So, we set a goal to develop “stigma-busting” programs that educate students on the reality of opioid use and the programs available to fight the epidemic.

Our Chapter also looked inward. We knew it was important to define the problem on our own campus and to determine root causes before developing solutions. We know that the community surrounding Purdue struggles with opioid addiction, but we were unsure if Purdue students were affected similarly. We developed a survey to learn how common substance use might be among Purdue students, to gauge students’ understanding of addiction, and to discover what specific resources students may need, such as education or health services.

LEARN MORE: IHI's upcoming Leadership and Organizing for Change online course

What else have you accomplished so far?

Near the end of the spring semester, we visited a local homeless shelter with a group of students from several interdisciplinary organizations involved in the project. We brought supplies requested by individuals experiencing homelessness and offered on-site hepatitis A vaccinations. We also brought educational materials including details for an upcoming training event about naloxone, an emergency opioid overdose treatment; information about hepatitis A; guidance on caring for someone who has overdosed; and contact information for resources in the community.

Our team spread out and spoke with every person at the event to better understand their experience and the resources they needed. Though we brought educational materials as a guide, we spent most of the time speaking with the individuals, many of whom had a close friend or family member who struggled with addiction, about the challenges they face. Their stories reinforced the importance of the project and energized us all to continue this work, and the residents seemed appreciative of the opportunity to share their stories with us.

Without the knowledge gained from these conversations with people directly affected by substance use disorders, our project would have been much less effective and meaningful. As a result, BoilerWoRx now has visits scheduled to several shelters and community centers in Tippecanoe and surrounding counties, including the shelter from the first event. Our Chapter is working with them to train and act as volunteers. 

What’s next for your Chapter?

Moving forward, we are implementing the Stigma-Busting Program on campus this semester, including a presentation to the newest class of nursing students about harm reduction and naloxone administration. The team also plans to hold a tabling session on campus to educate students walking by about language and harm reduction.

We’re also collecting data via a standardized survey at our events to help us continuously improve our work. It asks about demographic information, knowledge of community resources, and perception of addiction. Using this data, as well as information from a local needle exchange program, we plan to better refine our educational materials and develop on-campus resources for students affected by the opioid epidemic if needed.

During the launch of this project, the weekly lessons from the Leadership and Organizing for Change course provided important guidance on how to begin addressing a problem as large as the opioid epidemic. Defining the problem locally, setting goals, developing a personal narrative and a story of us, and meeting with stakeholders are all examples of course learnings that contributed to the progression of our project. The course provided advice and structure that allowed our Chapter to improve, as more students joined the project and took ownership of the work. Our project is only just beginning, and I look forward to continuing to implement these learnings as a Chapter to develop leadership on campus and improve the health of our community.

Learn more about combatting stigma and how you can take action through the IHI Open School Recover Hope Campaign.

Take the upcoming Leadership and Organizing for Change online course, to learn to lead a campaign project.

Emily Maegerlein is a student at the Purdue School of Nursing and Health Justice Chair of Purdue’s interprofessional IHI Open School Chapter.

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