Amid tears, six students shared direct and familiar experiences of substance abuse to a crowd of 60 students in William L. Harkness Hall on Tuesday night.
The panel, co-hosted by Yale Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Mind Matters, was dedicated to reducing the stigma around drug use and addiction as well as advocating for extending Yale’s existing amnesty policy to cover all drugs. Panelists shared the emotional burden of a family member’s addiction and the stigma they faced in coming to terms with their own substance abuse disorder.
At the beginning of the panel, SSDP President Clay Dupuy ’18 urged the audience to ask, “What can Yale be doing better?”
“Yale can’t have it both ways,” Dupuy told the News after the event. “Either addiction is a mental illness or it’s a crime. But you can’t on the one hand encourage students to seek help for substance use and on the other hand turn around and suspend them if they come forward in circumstances where drug use is discovered.”
Current University policies provide disciplinary amnesty for students and friends of students who wish to seek alcohol-related medical attention. However, the same policy does not extend to other illicit drugs — meaning that they could face reprimand, expulsion or even referral for prosecution.
Dupuy, who was suspended for three semesters for drug use related to mental illness, was partly inspired to organize Tuesday’s panel after he participated in a Mind Matters panel last spring. Dupuy said the University referred him for criminal prosecution, yet the Executive Committee was reticent to consider evidence of his bipolar disorder in re-evaluating the original penalty. He called Yale’s approach to possession of illicit substances “misguided.”
Bryan, a panelist who declined to share his last name because he is a member of anonymous addiction recovery groups, said he started using alcohol and marijuana “as a coping mechanism” after he began struggling academically freshman year.
He underscored that reducing the guilt and shame associated with addiction could save lives.
Riley Tillitt ’19 shared his brother’s struggles with heroin and other substance addictions. His brother’s health care company, UnitedHealthcare, ultimately forced him to discontinue treatment when the costs escalated. Tillitt’s family is currently engaged in a lawsuit, which he expects will eventually reach settlement.
Still, Tillitt shared the emotional burden he felt as a result of his brother’s illness and eventual death from overdose.
“For me, my brother kind of died twice: The first time was when he started using drugs and turned into a person I didn’t know,” Tillit said. “And the second was when he overdosed.”
Lindsey Rogers ’17, who also described her brother’s experience with substance abuse disorder, said it was necessary to re-evaluate the criminalization of illicit drug possession and address the costs that prevent many Americans from receiving treatment.
Rodgers also underscored the need to “foster understanding and challenge all preconceived notions of addiction.” She added that starting a conversation at Yale surrounding these issues could lead to a conversation on the national level.
Rodgers questioned why Yale does not have similar orientation programs for drugs as it does for alcohol and sex, emphasizing the need to put all freshmen on a level playing field in terms of knowledge about illicit substances.
Several panelists, including Mallory Isburg ’17, spoke about their relatives’ experiences publicly for the first time. For Isburg, whose sister grappled with addiction throughout her entire adult life, the best support was “to not bring up the past” and “to not volunteer your opinions.”
However, Wade Southwell ’19, who discussed his own struggles with addiction, emphasized that people looking to help those with substance abuse disorders should not serve as enablers. He suggested that people “lovingly disconnect, whether its financially or socially, and allow the person to experience the results of their addiction.”
“The path to change began for me when the pain got so bad that I knew I needed something else,” Southwell said. “The pain has to be greater than the fear of change and that wouldn’t have happened if things were easy.”
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, one attendee was inspired to share his own experience with substance abuse. Bryan cited this as evidence of the panel’s success in its ability to provide someone with “something closer to a support system.”
Claire Hu ’20, who attended the event and is a member of the mental health advocacy group Mind Matters, said the panelists shed light on a largely undiscussed topic. Other attendees similarly underscored that, even at Yale, those who struggle with addiction often face stigma.
“I do think there is a motivation to appear put-together at Yale — having the right internship, getting the right grades,” said Audrey Luo ’17, the president of Mind Matters. “If you expose that you have an addiction, it’s kind of breaking that veneer.”
Between 2002 and 2015, the number of national overdose deaths more than doubled, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.