VCU hosts 3-day conference on drug and substance abuse

Panelist Lyn O’Connell presented “Roadmap to Recovery: From the Epicenter of the Epidemic to the Epicenter of Solutions” at last week’s conference. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Hannah Eason, Contributing Writer


Tom Hill was nearly in tears as he reflected on his battle to recover from drug addiction in Manhattan in 1992. Hill described his former self as being only 125 pounds and spiritually weak, with a glazed look over his eyes.

“I was convinced that I was alone. I was convinced that I was flawed,” Hill said. “And I was convinced I was God’s mistake.”

Hill said the stigma associated with homosexuality and drug addiction is rooted in the same blame. During the AIDS epidemic, Hill recalled people in the LGBTQ community being told, “It’s your fault you’re dying, it’s your fault you’re gay.”

“Now they say, ‘I didn’t put a needle in your arm,’” Hill said regarding the opioid epidemic.

Hill presented “From LGBT Advocacy to Recovery Advocacy — Lessons and Triumphs” at the “Research to Recovery” conference April 10-12.

Drug research, rehabilitation and recovery specialists highlighted the myriad improvements and battles the substance use community has faced amid a national addiction crisis in the conference held in Cabell Library. Proponents find the term “substance use” more humanizing than “substance abuse.”

The three-day conference was presented by the College of Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, also known as COBE, the Wellness Resource Center and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Five substance-use specialists spoke candidly on what they were worried and optimistic about at a panel Thursday afternoon.

“Our health care system is fatally broken in this country,” said Jim Hudziak, director of the Vermont center for children, youth and families at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and Medical Center.

Hudziak said he was “irked” by the lack of proper treatment for many health issues in large areas of the U.S.

“We can give you a new heart, we can give you a new knee. We can replace things,” Hudziak said. “But we do a horrible job in diabetes, obesity and hypertension. We do a terrible job with depression, substance use disorders and anxiety disorders.”

Panelist Devin Reaves co-founded and serves as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition, promoting health and human rights for people impacted by drug use. He describes himself as the “doctor of the streets” and a grassroots advocacy leader on many issues, including the expansion of access to the life-saving opioid-overdose drug naloxone.

Reaves painted a picture of a sports player becoming addicted to opioids after surgery, forced into heroin addiction by an “evil” doctor and pharmacist.  

“We consider him a first-class addict,” Reaves said. “Then there’s the person experiencing homelessness or mental health concerns that smokes crack cocaine, and we should throw that person in jail.”

Reaves said this causes many people to hyperfocus on opioid addiction and disregard other drugs such as meth and crack cocaine.

Panelist Lyn O’Connell serves as the associate director of community services for the Division of Addiction Sciences at Marshall Health in Huntington, West Virginia. O’Connell’s professional work has specialized in stigma and treatment for those struggling with substance use disorders and trauma.

O’Connell spoke of the obstacles faced by those convicted of drug-related crimes, including losing their jobs, housing and social services.

“If we don’t make employers ready to hire an individual with a substance abuse disorder, there’s no pathway out,” O’Connell said. “There’s no bootstrap in the world enough strong enough to pull out of that system.”

Loyola Marymount University psychology professor Joseph LaBrie said his biggest worry surrounding substance use was the myths often attached to it. LaBrie said some parents think exposure to alcohol during adolescence can prevent binge drinking in college — whereas LaBrie says data indicates this increases college drinking.

Mental health and substance use counselor Ari Laoch specializes in individuals living with systemic and single-event-based trauma, substance use and brain injuries.

Laoch, a panelist and VCU alumnus, also provides services to a number of specific groups. Among them are LGBTQ people, adults seeking a provider knowledgeable on polyamorous relationships, people with challenges related to a past brain injury, people with HIV/AIDS and those seeking a kink-knowledgeable professional.

“There’s hope, there’s opportunity and there’s some trust,” Laoch said regarding his optimism for the future. “We are all having this conversation — not just as professionals in the field — but with students.”

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