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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 47 Number 3 
Summer 2014

Student Issues

Edited by Danielle Kohfeldt and Chuck Sepers 

Student Issues

Edited by Danielle Kohfeldt and Chuck Sepers

Making the Invisible Visible

Written by Irene Daboin, Georgia State University

There is an invisible truth about me that most people that I interact with on a daily basis don’t know: I am an international student. I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. At the age of eighteen, in fall 2007, I moved by myself to the United States to pursue my undergraduate degree at University of Miami, and in fall 2011 I moved to Atlanta, GA to pursue a PhD at Georgia State University. I have light-toned skin and green eyes, which most people don’t associate with a Latino background, and while in Venezuela I attended a bilingual school from a very young age. This means that I often go by unnoticed, not having an accent or a look to give away where I am originally from. I experience the advantage, then, of not being immediately stereotyped as a Latina, but also experience the disadvantage of feeling like my identity is invisible and overlooked. Some days, like the days in which Venezuelan political turmoil is overwhelming and I fear for my family and friends back home, I wish that my identity was not invisible; that those around me would be reminded of where I am from and treated me differently because of it.  It is a daily struggle and an internal conflict. I do not want to be treated differently in ways that would lead to typecasting, pitying, tokenizing, or undermining. And yet I do not want any special treatment either. I just wish to be recognized for who I am, and have the multi-faceted aspects of my identity be noticed.

I imagine I must not be the only one. Whether it’s because of their ethnic background, their sexual orientation, their family struggles, or their financial situation, I would guess that there are many graduate students out there feeling like a part of them is invisible. My intention in writing this article is to start a conversation and to make some recommendations (applying foundational principles of community psychology) that I think may be helpful in order to make training programs across the United States safer environments for making the invisible visible. 

I am very fortunate to be attending a program where diversity is a central tenet, not just as part of our training, but across all dimensions as a general program philosophy. Based on my own experience at Georgia State University, and acknowledging how this program-wide philosophy has encouraged me to voice my needs and share my invisible identity, that is my first recommendation: (1) Promote and support diversity at all ecological levels. I strongly believe that training programs should show their commitment to hire diverse faculty, recruit diverse students, promote diversity training, discuss diverse issues, and encourage tolerance and awareness. However, my fear is that most training programs stop there and forget to maintain and support this diversity. Once a program has hired diverse faculty and recruited diverse students, supports and resources should be put into place to protect and encourage these individuals, allowing them to thrive. Support group meetings, social hours, and peer mentorship opportunities are just some ideas that come to mind. Furthermore, I believe programs should show their commitment to diversity beyond just face-value activities: diversity awareness should transpire in everyday social interactions and administrative decisions. Diversity should occur both in front of and behind the curtain in order to provide safe spaces for diversity to prosper. In this way, it is up to those in higher-up positions to set the tone and lead by example, and seek out their own diversity training in order to ensure that they practice what they preach. And beyond just formal training, I believe the key is formal program members to harvest their local resources: consult with your diverse faculty and students, ask them what they think, what they would suggest, how your decisions affect them, and how things could be made better. Make them an active part of the process, not just to maintain the diversity in your program, but also to empower your current pillars of diversity.

This leads me to my second recommendation: (2) Empower individuals within your program and show that you value your human resources. I believe it is crucial that training programs provide opportunities for individuals (both students and faculty) to be involved in decision-making, and that programs give recognition and reward individuals for their personal strengths. The former I already have partially explained, but the latter is also important. It should go beyond just rewarding academic or research-oriented strengths and beyond just holding program-wide or ‘end-of-the-semester’ celebratory events. Even if individual strengths are just rewarded through small gestures (a congratulatory email, a thank you note, a box of doughnuts for the office or the lab), it is vital for individuals to feel appreciated for who they are and visible for what they do (from marathon-running, to being a dedicated parent and balancing parenthood with studying, to making it to work on-time even though they live far away).

I am reminded of the Zulu greeting: “Sawubona”, which means “I see you”, and basically suggests “You are not invisible to me, I recognize you for who you are, and I acknowledge and value your existence”. The response to this African greeting is “Ngikhona”, which means “I am here” and expresses gratitude for being recognized. The values behind these greetings are embodied by our foundational principles of Ecological Perspectives and Empowerment, which we must apply to our lives as community psychologists and not just our work. There is also a Zulu saying which states “A person is a person because of other people.” We feel that our identities are visible or invisible according to how others respond to us. If training programs can successfully apply the two recommendations I’ve described, I believe we can make the invisible visible and promote healthier, more productive training environments.

Drug Policy in Illinois: Addressing the Suburban Opiate Overdose Epidemic

Written by Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch, M.A., Roosevelt University

Before coming to graduate school, my knowledge of drug policy was very limited. My previous clinical experiences in the chemical dependency clinic of a hospital taught me that effective substance abuse and addiction treatment was very difficult to obtain for most people in the community who would actually need it. Even clients with insurance had a very difficult time obtaining the funding to cover the expensive cost of treatment. I vividly remember having completed a chemical dependency consult in the psych unit one day on a woman who was desperate for inpatient treatment after several overdoses and suicide attempts. This woman did not want to die, but realized that these attempts were her only chance for admittance into the hospital. After completing the consult and providing my recommendations for her to go to a long-term inpatient facility, I learned that she would only get four days of inpatient addiction treatment. I knew that four days would be next to useless for this client, and I felt defeated and furious about how this system had failed this woman and several other clients I had seen. I knew I wanted to do something to change the barriers that prevented people from getting the treatment needed. In addition, I wanted to do something to change the barriers that make it difficult for good people who suffered from addiction and substance abuse to get jobs, housing, education and resources. At that time, I had no idea how to do those things.

Fortunately, while interviewing for the Roosevelt University Clinical Psychology Psy.D. program, a professor introduced me to Kathie Kane-Willis, the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy (ICDP). Once I accepted a position as a research assistant at the consortium, I knew I finally had a chance to do work that would make a difference in the barriers I had witnessed. As part of my job, Kathie recommended I join Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) to be able to meet other like-minded students.

The ICDP began in 2005 with the help of a grant from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in order to establish drug policy research in Illinois. The work we do at the ICDP in analyzing data sets, interviewing impacted populations, legislative reviews, and more, combines work from other non-profit organizations, scholars and policymakers in order to create policy recommendations (Kane-Willis, Schmitz, Bazan, Narloch, & Wallace, 2011). As a team, we spend a lot of time gathering or analyzing data for our research reports, planning major university events to disseminate our research, and advocating for more sensible drug policies using the results of our research as evidence. In the past few years, the ICDP has focused on addressing the heroin use epidemic in the suburbs of Illinois. The ICDP released the first report examining heroin use in the state of Illinois in 2010 (Kane-Willis, Schmitz, Bazan, & Fraguada Narloch, 2012). Noting significant heroin use in the suburbs, we decided to work on an additional report focusing on suburban heroin use. A community organization contracted with us to complete the report in order to inform the development of a comprehensive heroin prevention program. A variety of methods were used to get a well-rounded understanding of the heroin use trends in the suburbs, including interviewing current heroin users and those in recovery, conducting focus groups with youth who had experienced drug education and had a history of substance use, and surveying parents of youth (Kane-Willis et al., 2011).

During this time, we were also involved in the development of legislation for what is now the Illinois Emergency Medical Access Act, also known as the Good Samaritan Law. This law, which went into effect on June 1, 2011, allows for limited immunity from charges for possession of small amounts of illegal substances if calling 9-1-1 or taking the victim to the emergency room in the case of an overdose. In essence, it helps to ensure that people call for help in the event of an overdose by removing the possibility of charges, as the number one reason that people avoid calling for help is this fear of punitive action (Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, 2013). In 2010 and 2011, I worked to advocate for the law by asking friends, family and the Roosevelt community to contact their local representatives in favor of the law. Because of this advocacy work, our SSDP chapter received a “Saving Lives” award during last year’s Overdose Awareness Day activities.

This semester, I have been involved in getting the message out about the Good Samaritan Law and advocating for better access to naloxone, which is the opiate antidote that can reverse an opiate overdose. In 2010, the Illinois legislature enacted the Overdose Prevention Act allowing trained individuals to possess and administer naloxone (Narcan™) to someone experiencing an overdose (ICDP, 2013). In February of 2013, I participated in the training required in order to possess and administer naloxone in the state of Illinois. In addition, I have also been involved, along with my ICDP colleagues, in the Illinois OD Action group. This group consists of people directly impacted by the heroin epidemic from all over Illinois. This group includes parents and family members who have lost loved ones due to overdose, people in recovery, people who have survived an overdose, mental health and public health professionals, researchers, physicians, and more. The group works collaboratively to plan events and educational opportunities for their communities. A lot of our communication takes place via Facebook, since we are all over the state, and time-sensitive issues and questions are addressed quickly through this social media site.  This year, we chose to involve this group in the planning of our ICDP events. For example, for our most recent Forum on Drug Policy, one of our panels included people from Lake County who have been actively trying to save lives and spread the message about the Good Samaritan Law and naloxone access in their community. We wanted our audience to be able to see this work from the perspective of ordinary people that are doing it. Lake County is working to develop a comprehensive heroin education program similar to that of the Robert Crown Center, and reached out to us at the ICDP to help them in their efforts. 

The Annual Forum on Drug Policy is one of the ICDP’s biggest events of the year, typically taking place in April. The forum is one of my favorite things that I get to be a part of at the ICDP because it brings together such a unique group of people: advocates, professors, authors, legal and law enforcement professionals, researchers and field experts. Our panelists discussed the sustainability of existing U.S drug policy models in the United States and internationally, and examined public health solutions designed to address the opioid overdose crisis. The event this year was especially rewarding since many of our OD Action community members attended and were able to gain knowledge and information straight from the sources. During our reception following the event, I witnessed many connections created between the community members and other professionals. It was very rewarding to see these people feel so empowered and motivated to bring this new information back to their communities, where they have become leaders for this movement.

In addition to the forum, the ICDP has been attending and presenting at conferences and educational events in order to educate communities about the Good Sam Law and naloxone access and administration. In March, my colleagues and I attended the Southern Illinois Methamphetamine and Other Drugs Awareness Conference in Carterville, IL. At that conference, we presented in several sessions and I had an opportunity to present in a workshop to provide an overview of the Good Samaritan Law. Professionals in the public and mental health fields as well as concerned community members attended the workshop, and their participation helped us to revise how we implement our community outreach and education about this cause. Involving community members and those who this epidemic has had an impact on led to the empowerment of these communities to take on this cause and work to make changes in how they address the problem in their area.

The events and activities that the ICDP has been a part of have had a big impact in Illinois. Once we began collaborating with community members and hearing their personal stories about how the heroin problem in Illinois has affected them, we knew we were on to something that would make a big difference. By providing a platform for these people to tell their stories in our research reports and at our events, we have spread this message all over the state (and beyond). We have demonstrated how some of our drug policies have actually perpetuated this problem, and how new policies such as the Good Sam law and naloxone access are actually making a positive difference. We demonstrate that ordinary people are able to save lives because of these policies, and we can do so because community members have been empowered to help the rest of their community by telling their stories. These activities and the many other drug policy related activities in which I take part have had a huge impact on my professional development. Although I knew when I started at Roosevelt that I wanted to work primarily with young people who have substance use disorders, I have gained the knowledge and skills to address the problem on many levels. Remembering the sense of defeat I once felt when working with clients, I am able to recognize how much more empowered I am now to actually make a difference in the lives of people that are affected by substance use and addiction. I will continue to on drug policy activism as I continue in my career as I have developed a real passion for this work.

References

Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. (2013). Understanding Illinois’ Emergency Medical Services Access Act: The “Good Samaritan Law” Illinois Public Act 097-0678. Retrieved from http://stopoverdoseil.org/home.html.

Kane-Willis, K., Schmitz, S. J., Bazan, M., & Fraguada Narloch, V. (2012). Heroin Use: National and Illinois Perspectives (2008-2010). (research report). Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy: Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL. Available from http://roosevelt.edu/~/media/Files/pdfs/CAS/ICDP/HeroinUse-Aug2012.ashx

Kane-Willis, K., Schmitz, S. J., Bazan, M., Fraguada Narloch, V. & Wallace, C. B. (2011). Understanding suburban heroin use: Research findings from the Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education. (research report). Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy: Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL. Available from http://www.roosevelt.edu/~/media/Files/pdfs/CAS/IMA/IMA%20Publications/Understanding_Suburban_Heroin_Use.ashx

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