On Tuesday, April 29, HealthEd at Vassar hosted a town hall meeting for the college called “Unmasking the Disease of Addiction.” The event started with a short discussion facilitated by Director of Health Education Renee Pabst. In advance of the event, Dean of the Students DB Brown sent an email to the student body explaining the importance of the event and connecting to recent issues of drug and alcohol abuse on campus.
As Brown’s email read, “Many times, college students believe that you can not have an alcohol or drug problem while in college, only after you graduate. The reality is that more and more of our Vassar students are struggling with issues around substances.”
It went on, “We also know that 1 in 4 of our students have family members affected by the disease of addiction. Most of the time, shame and fear keep students from coming forward to seek help.”
The email also was also signed by Pabst and VSA President Deb Steinberg ’14. As Steinberg wrote in an emailed statement, “I have heard many people express concern for a friend’s drinking behavior and often hear the phrase ‘it’s not alcoholism until after college’ and those kinds of things are definitely concerning.”
The film focused on the growing epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction in the United States. It cited the stigma of addiction as an incredibly destructive problem and emphasized the importance of spreading awareness about the disease of addiction. As one speaker said at the end of the film, “Silence equals death. I won’t be silent anymore.”
As Steinberg said, “It’s good that these offices are coming together to address this problem and raise awareness about addiction and the available resources so that students can recognize the signs and get the help they need. Based on the Alcohol Task Force report the VSA created two years ago, substance use and abuse on campus is definitely prevalent, and we should do everything in our power to help the members in our community.”
In the discussion, Pabst underlined the significance of making addiction treatment more accessible and available on campus. She also mentioned that some students try to explain away their struggle with addiction instead of facing them head-on. As she noted, “Many times, students feel that they have an escalating problem under control or do not recognize that this is a problem. It is very hard for students to realize that young people can develop addictions and are more prone to them. We have seen an increase in students who are needing treatment around alcohol and other drug abuse.”
Pabst went further, saying, “The goal is to help students get support and help before it develops into addiction and needs more intensive treatment. Many times, we can help students early on when risk and problems increase.”
Another concern that Pabst brought up in the meeting related to Founder’s Day this weekend. Pabst was critical of the drinking and drug culture that is a central part of the event and where it leaves students who are dealing with addiction. As Pabst noted, the College makes a concerted effort to be an accessible, open and welcoming place for its students, but students dealing with addiction often don’t feel as if they have a place for themselves during this event.
Also at the town hall were representatives from the Council of Addiction Prevention & Education of Dutchess County Inc (CAPE). According to the organization’s pamphlet, their mission is “To provide, promote and pioneer prevention education services for the citizens of Dutchess County and neighboring areas so that they can make healthy and responsible choices to improve individual and community quality of life.”
Not at the meeting, but a central figure in the discussion, Executive Director of CAPE Elaine Trumpetto wrote in a message on the organization’s website, “The face of this epidemic is painful to look at particularly through the eyes of the families who have suffered such tremendous loss. Communities nationwide are struggling with this problem- often alone- because of the shame and guilt that remains associated with substance abuse.”
She went on, “There is no place for shame and guilt when towns and communities are losing mothers, fathers, children, friends and neighbors. It will take every sector: youth, parents, schools, churches, civic organizations, law enforcement, government, mental health organizations, substance abuse organizations, youth serving organizations, government (at all levels), businesses and healthcare, to confront this issue in a caring, compassionate, competent, collaborative and strategic way. It will mean working together to dispel the stereotypes that present a barrier to helping those individuals and families who are suffering through this nightmare.”
Pabst reflected on the town hall meeting and hoped that those who attended the event would come away having genuinely learned from the film and the discussion. She also asked those who attended the meeting to spread what they learned to their peers so as to continue the discussion.
“I hope that this film and discussion raises awareness around this for students on multiple levels. I hope that those who are concerned about friends can learn to support them and refer them for help, those who are struggling know they are not alone, and most importantly a culture shift in looking at alcohol and drug abuse and how a college campus can keep this disease hidden and prevent fellow students coming forward for support,” she said.
She concluded, “We need to try to get students help before the disease of addiction happens, and if addiction does occur, we need to see this as a disease not a lack of will power or responsibility and that those who are in recovery on this campus need support.”