The Addiction Summit

Julie Spierer, Special Features Editor

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One of the biggest challenges of communicating academic information outside of a classroom setting is fostering the bridge between the field of study and the interest of the general public. Two areas of scientific study that have been at the forefront of this challenge are mental health and addiction, both individually and in conjunction with one another. Neuroscience major Alek Zherka ’19 has coordinated with Professor of Psychology Judy Grisel, Academic Assistant for the psychology department Christi Shingara, and students Spencer Reed ’19 and Maddy Hackley ’19 to create the first-annual Mental Health Summit. The inaugural event will focus on addiction.

 

The University will welcome experts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and Geisinger Medical Center on April 18 to speak about current issues within the field of addiction. The speakers will deliver their advanced and technical scientific research in the form of a digestible event that will last around two hours.

 

In his senior year of high school, Zherka interned with the NIDA and recognized the profound importance of the association’s work and its applicability at the university level. He reached out to his mentor, Joseph Frascella, Senior Science Advisor to the Director of the NIDA, and found that people in the office would be interested in participating in a community outreach event. With NIDA experts on board, Zherka connected with Grisel and started planning a large-scale addiction-focused event.

 

Zherka founded the summit with the aspiration to facilitate discussions about the falsehoods perpetuated by the Internet, media, and word of mouth surrounding addiction and mental health.

 

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2017, 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) have battled or are battling a substance use disorder, and 8.5 million of these individuals suffered or are suffering from a mental health disorder. The comorbidity (simultaneous presence of two chronic conditions) of addiction and mental health disorders has been noted in recent research.

 

“The goal of the summit is to present the most current research about addiction in an understandable way so that people can go on to have well-informed conversations about their own health and the health of others around them. I really hope the summit cultivates an open and honest dialogue about addiction between the students, community members, and guest speakers,” Hackley said.

 

Grisel explained that she hopes the students’ main takeaway from the event is to develop “a better appreciation for the ways the brain contributes to behavior, in addition to recognizing how complex addiction is.”

 

“A successful event will go a long way in helping people make better decisions and have intellectual conversations in regards to their own health as well as that of their friends and loved ones… In the setting we are creating, with a panel of individuals at the forefront of their fields, hopefully, people will discover how important being well-informed really is,” Zherka said.

 

The summit’s format:

 

The summit will welcome three individuals from the NIH, including Dr. David Goldman (NIAAA), Dr. Robin J. Keeley (NIDA), and Dr. Betty Jo Salmeron (NIDA). The NIDA and the NIAAA are research institutes funded by the United States federal government whose mission is to utilize the power of science to tackle the large epidemics of drug abuse and addiction.

 

The panel will also welcome the Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer from Geisinger Medical Center, Dr. David Ledbetter. Geisinger is the leading regional source in Eastern Pennsylvania for medical treatment and information.

 

“I am looking forward to the panel of speakers we have lined up. I think each are diverse in their area of expertise, so it should make for a great event,” Shingara said.

 

The larger goal of the summit is to establish an annual event that discusses various aspects of mental health to provide the community with valuable information to further their own knowledge. This year’s event is aimed at addiction and will cover things such as adolescent brain development, gender differences, and comorbidities, as well as other topics which may arise from audience questions.

 

The summit will begin at 4 p.m. at the Campus Theatre on April 18. Grisel, who recently published a book about addiction, will moderate the event and introduce the four panelists and their research interests.

 

“It is always hard to find time for any extra activities, and this term has been particularly busy for me, but helping out with the Addiction Summit has been a pleasure for two reasons. First, student-driven academic initiatives are relatively rare on campus and I am thrilled to support their efforts. This seems so much more organic and appropriate than faculty trying to cajole students into expanding their horizons – instead faculty and staff are playing a supporting role to serve student interests. Second, addiction is a topic close to my heart, so I am looking forward to learning some new things from the expert panelists and audience discussion,” Grisel said.

 

The panelists will then be asked a set of broader questions, such as “What do you think is the biggest problem this youth generation faces today?” or “What are common misconceptions about addiction that you would like to clear up?” The event will conclude with a question and answer session with the audience, followed by the opportunity for attendees to meet the speakers after, across the street at Iron Front, and engage in continued conversation. Food will be provided.

 

Further direction

 

Hopefully, institutions of higher education will continue to fund events that follow Zherka’s summit model. Zherka strongly believes that “If we can spur other places to do events like this to get information out to other people who need to hear it, then eventually we can raise national and global scientific literacy and we can begin to make differences in individuals’ lives.”

 

In an age where information is rapidly spread through technology, it is important that the information misrepresented on these platforms is addressed and clarified. Spencer Reed expressed, “I’m honestly excited for the whole event. Addiction has been brought up a lot recently in the news, but many of us don’t know what causes addiction and why it’s so prevalent. I think the event will be a great platform for the guest speakers to share their knowledge about addiction, and we’re hoping for a big turnout.” The Addiction Summit aspires to bring individuals up to speed on the truths and falsehoods of neuroscience.

 

“Addiction is a biological disease rooted in real physiological alterations in the brain. Addicts should not be blamed for their behaviors because it is truly out of their control. They need to be supported through all stages of their recovery, especially through the harder parts such as relapse,” Jen Borowka ’20, neuroscience major said.

 

The event is not only open to students and staff but also the local community. These topics are important to students who are on the cusp of adulthood and those who watch their friends and/or loved ones struggle with these issues or battled addiction themselves. In fact, even if addiction is not currently affecting one’s life, it is likely these issues will occur in the future. Being well-informed on important topics like addiction is critical to making important life decisions and having intelligent conversations.

 

Although the event has required extensive efforts from all of those involved, they have faith that the summit will impact attendees. Zherka expresses that his ultimate hope is to “convince people that these are real troubles, that people aren’t choosing this lifestyle. If people take anything away from this summit, I want it to be empathy and an understanding of hard situations that other people, unfortunately, sometimes find themselves in.”

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