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Charleston Woman’s Opioid Research Receives High Honor From Harvard University

A Harvard University graduate has been honored by her University for her research into the opioid epidemic. According to the Charleston Gazette, recent Harvard graduate Sophia Kaufman earned Harvard’s prestigious Hoopes Prize for her senior thesis on causes and solutions to the opioid epidemic in West Virginia where she was raised.

“I wanted to answer questions like what made the opioid epidemic in Appalachia and West Virginia unique?” Kaufman said. “What role did culture, geographic location, history, industry and social suffering play in drug addiction and treatment?”

The Hoopes Prize is Harvard’s highest honor for undergraduate writing. The prize recognizes students for their scholarly work and research excellence with a cash prize of $5,000.

Kaufman, who majored in anthropology and global health, became fixated on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia while studying public health at Harvard.

Kaufman’s West Virginia roots run deep in the state community. Her grandmother, Rose Jean Kaufman, began the first family planning clinic in West Virginia.

Her grandfather, Paul Kaufman, was a state senator who sponsored legislation to improve mental health treatment options and strengthen mining safety.

Her father, Tod Kaufman, is the Kanawha Circuit Judge and had taken her when she was young to the United Mine Workers of America rallies in Southern West Virginia. Kaufman returned to these mining communities for her research on the state’s opioid epidemic.

During her research, Kaufman interviewed those suffering from addiction. Among them included a coal miner addicted to OxyContin and heroin who keeps naloxone (the overdose-reversing drug) in his home just in case.

Kaufman also interviewed a pharmacy worker who stole prescription pain medication while working for his father’s drugstore and a former cheerleader who had become addicted to the OxyContin her boyfriend provided.

One of the most common factors Kaufman’s interviewees shared was their struggle with the stigma surrounding addiction.

“The stigma … was felt and embodied at a personal level,” Kaufman said. “[It] prevented the individual from getting help … [and] was arguably the same stigma that on a community level perpetuates the stereotypes of immortality.”

Kaufman cited the following factors as potential causes of the opioid crisis: childhood trauma, a sense of hopelessness among the addicted, and industries with high rates of workplace injuries.

There are currently 19 million healthcare workers employed in the U.S. helping everyday Americans combat against illnesses and injuries (There are 3,200 bacteria on the average person’s hands alone). But there are also some doctors and drug manufacturers who may be doing more harm.

Kaufman cited that rogue doctors writing illegal prescriptions at sham clinics were another cause for the opioid crisis. She also notes that drug manufacturers and distributors who profited from the opioid crisis.

But now that we know the causes, what about some of the solutions?

Kaufman said that middle-ground interventions are necessary to combat the opioid epidemic on a larger scale. Although needle-exchange programs and free naloxone kits are effective, she said, they’re “Band-Aid” efforts.

“The opioid epidemic is the result of covering pain, not treating it,” Kaufman said.

In her conclusion, Kaufman advocates for expanded mental health services. She also advocates for programs that would help keep non-violent offenders arrested on drug charges out of the criminal justice system.

Instead, Kaufman hopes to divert non-violent offenders toward substance abuse treatment centers. Methadone treatments have been the most effective treatment option for those suffering from opiate addiction for over 50 years.

Kaufman plans to continue her opioid research outside of Harvard. This summer, she will be conducting addiction research at Rockefeller Neuroscience Center at West Virginia University.

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