When Mike DiMartino, ’17, lost a former classmate to a heroin overdose, the last thing he wanted to do was keep silent.
DiMartino, then a junior, channeled his emotion into his final project for a class he was taking. The class, part of the Global Citizenship interdisciplinary program, required students to give a speech addressing a change they wanted to see in the Lehigh Valley.
As DiMartino spoke about wanting to start a dialogue about substance abuse and leading people away from the idea of a “typical” addict, his classmates realized he was laying out what could make for a solid senior capstone project within the GC program.
Along with Jenna Pastorini, ’17, Juan Palacio Moreno, ’16, ’17G, Meg Kelly, ’17, and Jeff Zhong, ’17, DiMartino created Smash the Stigma, a campaign that addresses the growing opioid epidemic in the Lehigh Valley.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 151 deaths from opioid overdoses in the Lehigh Valley in 2016. This has become the leading cause of accidental death in the area, recording more casualties than car accidents. The group was startled by the number of deaths and especially how little attention the epidemic was receiving.
As part of the project, the group had to get in contact with a member of the Lehigh Valley community who could serve as an adviser and mentor. The members of Smash the Stigma reached out to Hasshan Batts, the director of the Neighborhood Health Centers of the Lehigh Valley.
The five students met Batts last year during a community outreach meeting. Batts spoke about substance abuse in the Lehigh Valley area and how stigma can inhibit people’s ability to acknowledge the problem. The group approached him to help contribute to their project.
Batts agreed to help advise the group, saying the Lehigh community was one that could be impacted by stigma and misunderstanding about who could become an addict.
“There is no one person that’s abusing substance,” Batts said. “It’s not the college guy or the homeless person. What I’ve seen is that almost everyone and every kind of person is affected by it, whether they know someone that abuses substance or are the abuser itself.”
He said there is a big substance abuse issue in the Lehigh Valley, considering Pennsylvania has funded two Centers of Excellence in the area. These centers help people overcome their addiction to opiates. Out of the 45 centers in the state, the levels of usage and overdose have risen so high to the point where state funding has been implemented to help people.
Batts emphasized how student-led their project was.
“I helped allocate them resources, looked over some of their survey questions, and was a sounding board for their ideas,” Bratts said. “They truly were the driving force behind the project and lead it to be what it is.”
The group put a concentration on the idea of stigma itself.
When it comes to those abusing drugs, Pastorini said the biggest problem is people are scared to seek help for their addiction. She said they don’t want to be labeled a drug addict and have that stigma follow them the rest of their lives. They think it’s better to sweep it under the carpet and not deal with it.
Pastorini said with the abuse itself, people don’t think they’ll be addicted to drugs and it’s OK to try it once or a few times.
To gather more data about how the university community understands substance abuse, the group created surveys they distributed throughout campus. They received around 200 responses, and their results aligned with what Batts said.
The group said a lack of funding was a challenge at times.
“We applied for several grants and got declined for each grant,” Palacio Moreno said. “It definitely made research somewhat difficult to conduct and really made it hard to actually have events for our project, but I think we overcame this obstacle well.”
The group is hosting a panel meeting about substance abuse in Maginnes Hall 101 on April 26 at 6 p.m. Palacio Moreno said the panel members are from a diversity of fields, representing different members of the community. The speakers will touch on the impacts of substance abuse on the Lehigh Valley, with their relationships to the epidemic ranging from academic, law enforcement, political and personal.
Pastorini said the group made sure to have someone from the counseling center present at the event in case the panelist’s speeches were upsetting for audience members.
“The biggest issue with substance abuse is that no one talks about it or wants to bring it up,” Pastorini said. “They want to act as if nothing is wrong and to just go on with their life. Hopefully with our capstone project, we can start that conversation and support people in getting through their addiction.”