Helping keep people alive and healthy

Eric Clemensen knows firsthand the extent of opioid use disorder. He too is recovering and knows people who have died of overdoses. The Apple Valley, MN native earned a bachelor’s degree in alcohol and drug studies from Minnesota State Mankato so he could become a licensed drug and alcohol abuse counselor. He currently works as a counselor at the prison in Shakopee, MN. In this question and answer session, Clemensen discusses his work in the field and the School of Public Health’s executive public health policy and administration program.

How did you get interested in public health?

While working in the substance abuse field, I was introduced to public health work and worked with clients who were active users. My role has been to provide them with harm reduction tools and resources and it has really shown me how public health is related to addiction and drug abuse. I realized that I could make the most of a master’s degree in public health because I could create plans and programs to support these people who are in desperate need of help. I myself am a person on the mend and have known many people who have died of overdoses.

What specific topic or research area in public health interests you the most and why?

We are in a public health emergency with opioid use disorder, particularly overdose. I’m very passionate about this, and harm reduction seems to do the most in keeping people alive. The philosophy with harm reduction is to work directly with people who use substances to keep them as healthy as possible and, if they choose, to set them on a path to sobriety and then recovery. With addiction, the window of opportunity to help someone get sober is really small and so it is extremely important to respond accordingly. The dead don’t recover, so it’s just about keeping people alive and healthy.

How would you like to help solve this problem?

I currently work in a nursing environment at the prison in Shakopee, MN. We help get women out of prison up to four years early through an early release program that includes substance use disorder treatment. This process includes setting up what we call “drug-assisted treatment.” We will provide them with suboxone or vivitrol so they can stay alive and healthy when they come out. We also do training on how to correctly recognize an overdose and how to use naloxone/narcan. I think everyone should carry naloxone with them so that I can help anyone who needs it.

Why did you choose your program and what do you like about it?

The main reason I chose the Public health administration and executive policy The MPH program was due to the ability to work and go to school simultaneously. People in my cohort bring expertise from many different fields, and there is also a big emphasis on social justice. I can say that there are many skills that I am learning that I will be able to apply to work in the future.

My ultimate goal would be to start a safe drinking site/overdose prevention site. These are sites where people who use them can bring their drugs to the facility and use them there with clean supplies and be in a supervised environment so that if they overdose they can get the help they need. These are evidence-based facilities that can dramatically reduce overdose deaths.

What other public health work are you involved in?

I started a podcast (The Stigma Toll: A Podcast Series to Reduce Opioid Use Disorder Stigma Through Education) where I interview experts in the field of opioid use disorder (OUD) to discuss ways we can help people who use them and keep them healthy enough so they can find their way to recovery. The podcast’s goal is to educate as many people as possible, because substance use education reduces the stigma associated with it. If we can reduce that stigma, they will be more likely to get help sooner and find their way to recovery.

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