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Amanda Reese: People who Use Drugs Deserve Compassionate Care

Amanda Reese is part of the team at Open Aid Alliance, a grantee of the Syringe Access Fund, which is managed by AIDS United. Open Aid Alliance is a Montana organization dedicated to engaging and empowering hard to reach, underserved people by promoting harm reduction and compassionate care. May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, so we caught up with Amanda to learn more about the intersections of drug use, HIV, and Hepatitis; Open Aid Alliance's syringe service program; and what motivates her to do this critical work.

Amanda Reese

Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved in this work?

I am a native Montanan and first-generation college-graduate. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social work, I began working in a school-based setting. I had worked with children in my past and throughout my schooling, I had shied away from any work with a focus on substance use. It felt to close to things I had experienced with family members and friends and the traditional treatment model really turned me off. But then, I discovered harm reduction. During a summer break, I began volunteering at Open Aid Alliance and was so impressed with the programs, services and staff. Harm reduction allows me to support people using drugs in a nonjudgmental way that ensures the participant’s right to self-determination. I could not imagine working anywhere else, doing anything else.

What services do you provide through your Syringe Access Fund grant? Why are they so important?

We operate a harm reduction program which includes many services. Of course, we offer syringe access with two different types of syringes to fit our participants needs and reduce injection-related injuries. We also provide an array of harm reduction supplies for safer injecting including: alcohol swabs, sterile water, cookers/mixers, tourniquets, cottons, and education. We also provide basic wound-care supplies such as gauze and adhesive bandages. For the disposal focus of the program, we provide reusable disposal boxes, biohazard stickers, education on safer disposal practices and encourage syringe-return through disposal in-office and off-site. Through our relationship with our participants we also offer in-house referrals based on interest for services such as free HIV/HCV testing, safer sex supplies, early pregnancy testing, peer support, Medicaid enrollment, etc.

Our syringe access services are a vital component of Open Aid Alliance’s mission to provide services to community members who face incredible stigmatization and health barriers. Through the program, we are able to not only reduce the infection rates of HIV/HCV in our community but also, by treating our participants with dignity and respect, instill the “radical” idea that drug users’ lives have worth.

There is a spotlight on opioids and injection drug use in the media today. Has this affected your work at all?

Overall, I feel our work has been positively impacted by the spotlight. It seems that people are more knowledgeable and supportive of syringe access programs and other harm reduction strategies. And that’s what we need—to bring substance use out of the shadows and bust stigma. I believe the more responsible reporting we have on injection drug use and opioids, we’ll have more meaningful conversations and in turn, create a more informed and compassionate society. What role do you see syringe services programs playing in combatting the opioid epidemic and its intersections with HIV and HCV?

Our syringe program, like others, is uniquely situated to reach and engage people most likely to experience and respond to opiate overdose. We are able to have open, frank discussions about overdose risk reduction and response. We are also able to help elevate the voices and advice from those same people to inform our country’s overdose response which is hugely important. If, as a society, we’re not listening, talking and empowering to those most affected by opioid overdose, how do we expect to change anything?

When we talk about drug use and drug user health, we face mountains of stigma and misinformation. What is one misconception or myth about syringe service programs or drug user health that you want to dispel?

Ugh…so many! Something that really gets me fired up though: the bonkers belief that drug users are less deserving of compassionate care than others. Whether it’s officials across the country calling for a “3 strikes and you’re out” policy for naloxone as if withholding life-saving medicine is anything but immoral and a surefire way to increase fatalities or anecdotes from participants about the rough, unethical treatment they’ve received for infected injection injuries, I don’t understand the thought process. If we want to encourage people to make healthier decisions in their lives, we need to change the way our health systems interact with people who use drugs.

How do you stay motivated in your work?

Working in our syringe access program. Engaging with people, hearing their stories, their struggles and triumphs, keeps me grounded and passionate about creating positive change.

Thank you, Amanda!

Posted By: Sarah Hashmall, Communications Manager - Friday, May 18, 2018

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