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'Different Face' Of Addiction Has Led To 'Long Overdue' Shift From Criminal Justice To Public Health

David Patterson Silver Wolf is an associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University. He's also chief research officer at the institution's newly launched Community Academic Partnership on Addiction.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When David Patterson Silver Wolf refers to the U.S. opioid epidemic as part of a “disease of despair” and “a tough disease to treat,” he’s speaking from experience both professional and personal. He experienced substance-use disorder firsthand after growing up in a troubled home that quickly led him toward drugs and alcohol.

“I was young and I was also suicidal – which, a lot of folks, when we talk about [overdosing], it’s hard to separate out what is an OD and what is just taking of your life,” the Washington University faculty member recalled on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And I was also full of despair. I had no hope, I was a high school dropout … and I couldn’t see a vision forward.”

To say things have changed for Patterson Silver Wolf in the decades since is an understatement. Now he finds himself heading up the Brown School’s Community Academic Partnership on Addiction– a new effort aimed at addressing substance-use disorder among those struggling with it today.

But even as he contributes to new and much-needed attention to and research around the problem, he’s quick to emphasize that for many Americans, the crisis is nothing new.

“There are communities that have been living with this for decades and generations,” said Patterson Silver Wolf.

What has changed, he added, is that there’s now a “different face” – a white face – driving awareness.

“Historically, opioids, heroin, drug addiction – when you thought about that, most times [when] people thought about a person who lives in the street, the face that would come to mind would be a brown face,” he explained. “And the opioid epidemic – this is a different face connected to this. And [what] used to be a criminal-justice issue is now a public-health issue.

“And the changing face, while it has brought attention that this issue deserves, [this] is long overdue.”

Seeing substance-use disorder as a disease – a chronic health problem that needs to be treated, rather than something that can be solved via imprisonment, is at the heart of the newly launched CAPA clinic for which Patterson Silver Wolf is chief research officer.

Working in partnership with Preferred Family Health, the initiative aims to embed Brown School graduate students in a clinical setting akin to the research-and-teaching model of a university hospital.

“It will bring science and innovation to this problem,” Patterson Silver Wolf said. “This is a tough disease to treat, and so getting in-depth, on-the-ground, real-world training … while you can also direct your education, is very important.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.