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Op-Ed: Westfield State committed to community on opioid crisis

Submitted: April 14, 2016

Westfield State University recognizes that the prescription drug and heroin abuse epidemic facing Massachusetts and the nation lives close by and has not exempt from its grasp individuals both young and old that live in our neighborhoods. As a part of the Westfield community, we are devastated by recently reported local deaths, which underscore the power of addiction to take individuals, their families and communities to places of unspeakable pain. Our hearts open to the friends and families left to mourn, and to survive, what are ultimately the very private deaths of their dreams and the very public birth of our collective desire for action.

Westfield State University employs a number of strategies all year long to provide our students with critical information about prevention, abuse and addiction, as well as the effects and consequences of substance abuse, including training in Bystander Interventions and Substance Abuse Prevention education. Data provided by our Campus Counseling Center indicates opioid use and abuse has been overshadowed by other behaviors like alcohol and marijuana use. Risky alcohol use has been steadily declining, but the recent decriminalization of marijuana possession and a push toward legalization for recreational use have made the marijuana situation more challenging.

A multi-pronged environmental approach that addresses the opioid problem, which includes sound policy that supports prevention, treatment, and community policing efforts, fosters relationship-building to create a space we hope will halt the epidemic's path. We know that this commitment is shared throughout our community in its many institutions and civic groups.

Last fall, Westfield State took preemptive measures to ensure we are prepared in the event a campus member overdoses. We purchased and began officer training on the use of Narcan™ (naloxone), an opioid antidote. All Westfield State Public Safety officers are now trained and equipped to administer Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and potentially prevent an accidental death. Fortunately, Westfield State Public Safety has not had to use Narcan in an overdose situation.

The Commonwealth has a 30-year history of trying to combat addiction. Recent action is bringing together a multitude of agencies to address the current epidemic resulting in landmark new legislation signed by Governor Charlie Baker aimed at preventing addiction and educating students and doctors.

Westfield State has been supporting the state system throughout this struggle. In the area of health and human services we prepare our Social Work and Psychology students with training in mental and behavioral health. We also prepare Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse counselors through our graduate education program. Furthermore, new programs like the master's in Physician Assistant Studies will have a component on addiction behaviors, which will be unique among its peers.

Law enforcement officials are notably on the front-lines of this issue. Our Criminal Justice program is educating new generations of officers who now play an essential role among the communities in which they live and work in efforts to promote prevention and treatment.

According to state statistics, an average of four people a day die of unintentional drug overdoses in Massachusetts. Moving forward, we strive to be a part of local actions and solutions that bring our community together, foster open, healthy dialogue, and increase education and resources devoted to long term recovery. As a first step, Westfield State University will host a free screening of the moving "The Anonymous People" on Monday, April 25 at 6 p.m. in Westfield State's Dever Auditorium. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on addiction and recovery and resources will be available. I hope you lend your voice to this important discussion.

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Ramon S. Torrecilha, Ph.D. is the president of Westfield State University.

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