Opioid abuse in the United States has skyrocketed, killing more than 33,000 in 2015 alone according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are at highest risk according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It was against this backdrop that twelve Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) students in Professor Heather Miller’s Fundamentals of Speech (SPE 100) class met on November 16 to debate the causes of the nation’s soaring opioid crisis and how deeply it is impacting the New York City community.
“By the time we leave this room tonight, as many as eight people will have died from an opioid overdose,” said Miller, as students shuffled data charts and scripts for their presentations. In the three weeks leading up to this debate, students had been tasked with researching and formulating evidence-based speeches about the crisis.
Fundamentals of Speech is a required course at BMCC. Typically, students in this class will present both an informative and persuasive speech, all in an effort to help them communicate more effectively in an academic setting. The course requires research, writing and evidence-based argumentation, and in this class, it apparently opened the minds of a number of students about a national epidemic.
“I really had not heard about the opioid crisis before now,” said Liberal Arts major Ivy Ofori Asantewaa, who is from Ghana.
The class was divided into teams of two, and each student made their case using Power Point images of statistics, trends and graphs. Each team argued either the pro or con of a position on the crisis—regardless of how they might feel personally.
The three propositions included: “New York City is relatively unaffected by the opioid addiction that is impacting other parts of the country”; “People who are addicted to opioids have only themselves to blame” and “Shame is a major contributing factor to the growth of opioid addiction—and we should remove the shame associated with opioid addiction in order to treat it more effectively.”
“To shame someone for their faults is to further the suppression of such faults, rather than providing a solution,” argued Psychology major Michelle Ramirez. “To fight this epidemic we must start with understanding rather than with judging.”
Citing research, to build an argument
Ramirez cited a University of Virginia study showing the nation’s opioid overdose rate was likely 24 percent higher than what The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported during a six-year period between 2008 through 2014.
She argued that the families of addicts are often too ashamed to disclose on a death certificate, that a loved one died from opioid use. In many states, those deaths go unexplained, leading to the underreporting of the magnitude of the crisis.
“At first, I didn’t agree with my proposition, that shame is a major contributing factor to addition,” said Psychology major Justin Ramsey. “Doing the research and reading about other people’s experience has helped me understand that not everyone’s situation with addiction is the same,” he said.
Crisis impacting careers
The decision to focus on as grim a topic as the nation’s opioid crisis made good sense to Miller, since a majority of her students say they hope to pursue careers in criminal justice, psychology and other health-related professions.
“The opioid crisis will likely impact many of the students in some way once they are out in their professional lives,” she said. “Also, when students are all doing research in the same area, I can spend more time teaching them research skills, than I would be able to if they were focused on 12 different topics.”
The opioid crisis is already present in many of the students’ day-to-day lives, Miller explained. Some have been exposed to open drug use in their Bronx, Staten Island or Queens neighborhoods. Others have shared stories such as that of a friend who had gotten addicted while in high school. Another student's father became addicted to pain pills after a work injury and months later, is struggling to get off them.
All the students agreed, that research and the incorporation of facts, statistics or other evidence adds credibility to an argument, and that is something they say they will use throughout their academic and professional careers.
“The facts surrounding the opioid crisis are the wakeup call,” said Psychology major Jamel Hamilton-Wade. “The facts tell us what’s out there, how real it is."