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New Approach

Internships to help social work students in substance-use field

Connor O’Neal, ’20, G’22, is motivated to pursue social work because of people he knows who battled substance use. Now, a new internship program at Bridgewater State University will introduce him to innovative practices that help those dealing with addiction.

“I have personal ties that have driven me and pushed me down this road,” said O’Neal, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work. “They’re my driving force for wanting to make a difference.”

Thanks to a groundbreaking grant from RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, O’Neal and about a dozen other social work students will complete internships focused on harm reduction. This is a clinical approach to reduce negative consequences of drug use and support positive changes. 

"It’s really being able to think through how we continue to support people who might not be ready to stop using drugs,” said Allyson Pinkhover, director of substance use services at Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, an agency that will host BSU interns.

Harm reduction interventions include syringe exchanges, overdose education, naloxone distribution, and drug checking that helps people understand what they are using. Programs aim to keep people alive until they seek treatment and embark on recovery.

“We need to meet a person where they’re at,” said Dr. Taylor Hall, ’10, an assistant professor of social work. “It shouldn’t be all or nothing.”

The grant, awarded to BSU, Boston College, and Simmons University, funds paid internships over the next two academic years. The program is the first of its kind in the country.

“We’re so excited,” said Julie Burns, RIZE’s president and CEO. “Bridgewater submitted an outstanding application. We wanted a public institution involved and the enthusiasm for the project came through.”

Interns will receive hands-on training and knowledge they can draw on during their careers, Burns said.

At Bridgewater, the grant is part of an effort to enhance substance-use education in the School of Social Work. This fall, the school is launching a certificate program geared to employees of Justice Resource Institute, a large Massachusetts human service nonprofit.

“I think this is monumental because it’s going to give Bridgewater the opportunity to have more of a focus and specialization in substance-use disorders,” Dr. Carol Bonner, the school’s associate dean, said of the RIZE funding.

O’Neal looks forward to expanding his knowledge of harm reduction.

“It adopts a lot of the beliefs we have as social workers such as the destigmatizing approach,” O’Neal said. “Rather than condemning them for their addiction, we’re trying to minimize the effects.” 

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