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Decoding Substance Use Disorder: Students Shift Perspective During “Life Changing” Conference

By Colby Gallagher

Published on July 25, 2019

PCP Trip to Utah 2019Described as “by far one of the best decisions I’ve made in college” by one student, attending the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Institute on Substance Use Disorders in Salt Lake City, Utah has been an annual experience for students of George Downs PharmD’72 for 31 years. And Dr. Downs says for each the experience is impactful and eye opening.

Dr. Downs, dean emeritus of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, and Linwood F. Tice professor of pharmacy who teaches courses on substance use disorders, was one of four faculty members and two pharmacists who took 20 students to Utah to attend the institute from May 29 through June 2.

According to the organization, the purpose of the institute is to provide pharmacists and student pharmacists with resources, information, and guidance regarding substance use disorders education.

“Prior to the trip, I had a biased perception and limited understanding of alcoholism and substance use disorders. This trip greatly influenced my understanding and awareness about a disease that is often associated with various stigmas and stereotypes,” wrote one student. “I’m now more open-minded and recognize this is actually a disease, not a choice.”

“It is our hope that the Institute will help you redefine your views on the disease of addiction and serve as a catalyst to help increase the awareness of health and social problems related to alcoholism and other drug dependencies,” reads the APhA website.

Each year, Dr. Downs asks attendees to write a reflection following the trip, and this year’s responses show the institute reached its goal.

“I really came to this Institute to learn about where I was going wrong in my decisions as a daughter of an alcoholic and I am really glad I went. Growing up, like any other person, I thought that my dad's alcoholism was a choice, and now, I understand that it's not and that his alcoholism does not define him as a person,” wrote a student. “I am also happy that I was able to feel validated about my feelings for the first time in my 21 years of life. This family disease defines neither me, my dad or my mother and sisters. I finally understand that now.”

For those students who don’t have a personal experience with substance use disorder, they discovered how bias and perceptions impact those living with substance use disorders.

2019 PCP Trip to Utah

“During the various discussions, I found myself challenging my own perceptions of how I viewed individuals afflicted with a substance use disorder,” reflected another student. “The various speakers at the conference helped me comprehend that a substance use disorder is not a choice, but rather a possessive disease that leads to the formation of a second brain known as the addictive brain that has the ability to influence an individual’s personality as well as their actions.”

Throughout the conference, attendees were able to sit it on and participate in meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon. While this provided a first-hand perspective for some with little-to-no experience dealing with substance use disorders, there were others who have a personal connection to the topic.

“I was finally able to realize how hard it is for a person to stop and all the support a person needs to stop. Later that night I was able to reflect upon what I witnessed that day and finally I was able to forgive my brother for whatever he has done in the past due to his substance dependency,” said another student. “I knew from that day forward I would not get angry at him for his actions and behaviors, I will try to empathize with him and try to help him with the best of my ability. I know that it is hard for him to stop and he just needs the right support system to guide him the right way and to help him deal with whatever he has going on.”

Due to the nature of the institute, APhA provided different resources, like therapy dogs, to help attendees dealing with any stress.

“Hearing pharmacists speak about their experiences with patients and how they valued their careers, made me uncover a passion of mine,” wrote a student in their reflection. “One of the main reasons I chose pharmacy as a career was to be able to listen, help, and educate people and choosing a pharmacy career involving substance use disorders proves to go far beyond that. I had no idea just how much of an impact pharmacists themselves can have on a patient’s life if it is very inspiring and motivating.” 

The group found time for some light-hearted activities that included hiking, ice cream, stops at landmarks, and ziplining.

Faculty and students were also given the opportunity to present some of their work.

Read more student reflections:

“Hearing about people’s stories and listening to different guest speakers opened up my eyes to the need for education in this area of health care.  We, students, as aspiring pharmacists must understand the importance and severity of substance use disorder and become educators to our peers and to the public.  Substance use disorder is a disorder that needs to be treated and respected as any other disorder health care professionals encounter.”

“Probably most importantly, it was reinforced onto me that addiction is a family disease. When you help the one actually suffering from addiction, you help the whole family. Maybe the parent can finally keep their job so that they can put food on the table for the kids or perhaps the kids can finally go to bed knowing that their parents won’t be out all night.”

“These meetings were so emotional because of the severity and helplessness people felt at times when their loved ones or their selves struggles with substance use disorder.  Hearing about people’s stories and listening to different guest speakers opened up my eyes to the need for education in this area of health care.” 

“During one of the support sessions, I remember one of the facilitators stating a quote that I have come to associate with my experience. He stated, ‘We must remember that these people are not bad people trying to get good, but rather sick people trying to get healthy.’ This had a powerful impact on me as it referenced the stigma associated with substance use disorders, while portraying a better depiction of the individuals affected with these disorders.”

Categories: News, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmacy Practice and Administration, Pharmacy, Substance Use Disorders Institute, Faculty, Students, Event, Conference, USciences