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Jack Shuler writes about the opioid crisis
Jack Shuler writes about the opioid crisis.

432. Overdose crisis, harm reduction, and the Rust Belt

What’s driving Jack Shuler these days, and what’s at the heart of his new book, is a quest for empathy and rethinking America’s War on Drugs during the current overdose crisis.

As an associate professor of English at Denison University, Shuler teaches students about narrative journalism, the ability to tell longer, character-driven stories to a broad audience using some of the same skills fiction writers use to build their worlds. 

Shuler’s book, This Is Ohio: The Overdose Crisis and the Front Lines of a New America, examines the way in which Americans from Rust Belt cities are struggling to get clean and the people who are trying to incorporate harm reduction practices into a social justice issue that many people overlook. 

Shuler began hanging out at a diner in Newark where activists and organizers would meet with people. The diner itself was started by a man who wanted to help provide job experiences for people who might not otherwise be able to get hired — people with felony convictions or substance abuse issues. From those conversations, he became interested in the issue of homelessness and, more importantly, how people became homeless. 

“At the time I was working on a pitch about how people experience election night living in motels,” he says. “I wasn’t hearing about either candidate running for office about the growing inequality in income gaps and homelessness and the Rust Belt. As I talked to folks, this idea of deaths of despair, of overdose, that’s what most people were talking about. All these pressures leading to homelessness, leading to camps, were combining in a really awful way in overdoses.” 

As he continued to research and talk with people in Lincoln County, Ohio, and other rural areas, he “was very conscious of the fact that the national narrative around the overdose crisis was that Ohio and West Virginia were on their knees and their morgues were filling up. All of that is true, but the part I wasn’t seeing, I was seeing all these people fighting back and trying to save lives.” 

The harm reduction movement includes concepts like needle exchanges in order to help people who are addicted to injected drugs have access to clean needles, which helps cut down on certain transmissible diseases. 

“It’s a public health approach to addressing the harms that can come from using drugs, especially IV drug use,” Shuler says. “It’s also a social justice movement. There are lots of harms that come from drug use and some of those harms are larger harms, like racism. Racism and the drug war that affects people who use drugs. We can’t help people who use drugs if we don’t address larger systemic issues.” 

Harm reduction as a social movement is one that can be difficult for some people to grasp because of the limited understanding and conversations about drug abuse and overdose in general. 

“We’re not thinking enough about social determinants of health,” he says. “We’re treating this as a health crisis instead of a criminal justice crisis, but we’re still treating it as a criminal justice crisis. People don’t know enough about harm reduction. People still think addiction is a moral failing. People use drugs because drugs make them feel better. The next question should be, why do people feel bad? Those are big, huge questions and they require a lot of money to address. I don’t know if we have the will. If people aren’t even willing to wear masks, or don’t have the will collectively to address this, we’ll still be here when the pandemic subsides.” 

It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell talks to Jack Shuler, an associate professor at Denison University and author of a new book, This Is Ohio: The Overdose Crisis and the Front Lines of a New America. They discuss the drug overdose crisis in Ohio and how harm reduction practices can help save lives and communities.

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