Social Justice and Saving Lives

“We can and must do better,” she said. “Radical systemic change is needed.  I want to be on the frontlines of making those changes.”

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Addiction isn’t just a how disease: there’s a why, too...

Addiction isn’t just a how disease: there’s a why, too. Susan Buchholz coordinates and co-chairs the Joint Coalition On Health (JCOH), a grassroots public health and human service coalition formed in 1998, whose mission includes advocating for underserved and marginalized populations by addressing health disparities and the social determinants of health. She studies the why of addiction by looking at the factors that contribute to substance use disorder and make it difficult for people to recover.

Susan BuchholzSusan is a person in long term recovery and knows first-hand what is possible for women who have made it out of addiction. She said, “My educational trajectory has been rather unconventional. When I received my GED, it was with a baby on my hip. And more than 20 years later my son, by then a college student himself, was there to congratulate me when I graduated with a B.S. in Human Services. Now, at the age of 55, I am in the process of applying to attend Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to pursue a master’s in public health. I never expected to finish high-school – much less attend college. I grew up lacking self-worth and feeling that my voice didn’t matter. Life was scary and unpredictable. And like so many other women, I turned to alcohol to numb my feelings which, of course, only compounded my sense of helplessness. Life is very different now. I feel empowered by all I have survived.”

In February of this year, she had one of the proudest moments of her career when she introduced one of her heroes renowned addictions expert, Dr. Ruth Potee as the keynote speaker for a standing-room-only 2019 legislative breakfast. “Dr. Potee is a treasure. She works tirelessly to educate the community, dispel misinformation about addiction and boldly challenge the status quo. She’s also a prime example of how women working on the front-lines of recovery can support and inspire each other,” said Susan. From a woman who has often felt marginalized and vulnerable, Susan is now at the center of an empowered, vital movement. And like Facing Addiction with NCADD, she envisions a society where addiction is treated as a mainstream public health issue rather than a moral failing.

Women, Susan points out, have historically had a different experience with addiction than men. However, there are some key commonalities. She said, “I’m convinced that shame is one of the biggest obstacles to recovery – for everyone. For me, I feel that the shame of addiction has been exacerbated by gender-specific expectations, both internally and externally applied. Like many little girls, I grew up with a stereotype of what a woman should be: wholesome, self-less, proper, etc. Addiction was undoubtedly the antithesis of everything I felt I ‘should’ be.”

To help other women recover, Susan says, it’s important to acknowledge the barriers that women face in a space largely designed by and for men. She said, “Perhaps most disturbing, is the fact that many of the barriers are created by well-intentioned but antiquated health and human service systems. Mothers, understandably, often avoid seeking treatment for fear that they will automatically lose their children. And expectant mothers have the added burden of knowing that their addiction may be harming their unborn child. Many pregnant women do not realize that Medication Assisted Treatment is not only an option but may well be the best option for mother and child. Traditional social service models have not adapted but rather continue to reinforce outdated stereotypes that equate addiction with moral failure. Reflexively separating families is too often the rule rather than the exception. There is a huge need for treatment models which recognize the value of supporting families to remain intact. If we are unable or unwilling to make this shift, we risk perpetuating and strengthening the cycle of trauma and addiction.”

After more than three decades of dedicated work in addiction, mental health, and public health, Susan is still going strong. She said that the overarching themes of health equity and social justice resonate with her on a very personal level, as does the national tragedy of addiction.  As a child who grew up in a home fractured by poverty, untreated alcoholism and mental illness, part of her recovery is a deep commitment to breaking the cycles of trauma, hopelessness, and poor health outcomes.

“We can and must do better,” she said. “Radical systemic change is needed.  I want to be on the frontlines of making those changes.”

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