The opioid crisis: A multidisciplinary approach to policy-making

Last January, Postdoctoral Fellow Aileen Teague led students on an in-depth exploration of the opioid epidemic that has plagued the American public for the past several years. Titled “The Opioid Crisis: Causes, Effects, and Policy Solutions,” the Winter Session course packed a semester’s worth of content into less than three weeks. 

The policy-focused course, a version of which Teague has previously taught, combined intense reading and writing with relevant, high-impact experiences. Students read scholarly and mainstream articles and seminal works on opioids, the pharmaceutical industry, and the nature and treatment of addiction; wrote book reviews and opinion pieces; and, in the final class,  drafted and presented policy solutions. They also watched several documentaries about the crisis, kept a dialogue journal, held writing workshops, and engaged in discussions and debates about different facets of the topic. 

But the seminar work was only part of their experience. To appreciate more fully the dynamics of addiction and overdose in an epidemic that took the lives of 70,000 Americans in 2019 alone, the students attended an AA meeting, met with an officer from the Drug Enforcement Administration, visited a methadone clinic, and convened a mini-conference on pain management. They also discussed a range of related issues, including 12-step programs, stigma, and harm reduction.

Despite the intense schedule, Teague says it was a rewarding experience, and that one of the advantages of winter session was having the students’ undivided attention for 19 days. “It’s a great opportunity to do a lot of different activities you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in a semester-long course,” she says. “I served as a professor 60 percent of the time and coordinator 40 percent of the time in order to facilitate students’ access to knowledge.”

A topic like the opioid crisis is complex, Teague says, adding that if policies addressing it are to be effective, a multidisciplinary approach is essential. “There are so many things to take into account when making policy—mental health, chronic pain, the role of the medical community, the social constructionism of drugs.”

In the final class, the students were unanimous in expressing their enthusiasm for the course— not only the readings and guest speakers but the “field trips” as well. One senior called it “the most experiential learning I’ve done at Brown by a mile.” Another said he was glad to have been “taken out of his comfort zone.” Yet another said she appreciated that the class never knew where Teague stood on an issue, “so we had to figure out where we stand on it.” Another student was grateful to the course for “humanizing the crisis.”

“I thought heroin was far off,” said one sophomore. “This has made the crisis more real.”