Blindfolded, arms outstretched, a young man is standing outside of Hickory Hall listening for his partner parallel to him. The sun is beaming down on his face, the cool autumn air brushes past him, but he still cannot see. He is distracted by the chatter and laughter of surrounding groups – he shifts impatiently, dependent on his partner’s guidance to move.
During this activity, the blindfolded man represents a person who has an unhealthy relationship with a substance, and his partner is symbolic of an addictive drug. Without his sight in an expansive outdoor environment, the voice of his partner leads him and keeps him grounded. The gentleman’s partner must remind him constantly how seductive of a drug he is, how much he wants the drug, how the drug is a necessity for survival, to feel good, to feel “normal.”
For ten minutes the blindfolded man is in total submission to his partner representative of a drug. For ten minutes the students outside of Hickory got a day in the life of an addict.
Drugs and Society, a class taught by Professor Leslie Beale since 1994, takes a unique interactive twist on substance abuse prevention and education. Beale first began in the arts – she mimed, juggled, and danced in her own studio in Boston’s Chinatown. She then got both her Masters and Doctorate degree in substance abuse prevention.
“Originally, I wasn’t so interested in working with substance abuse,” said Beale. “But it just sort of took me here.”
Like many, Beale’s professional aspirations changed as she matured, but the medical field had influenced her from an early age.
“My father was a physician, so I grew up with the sense that you help people,” Beale said genuinely. “I also grew up in an alcoholic family, so I have a pretty good idea of what that experience is like.”
This led Beale into the field of public health, where she has made profound discoveries about substance abuse, and has applied it within the classroom to better educate her students.
“I try to teach my students how to be reflective and not to judge [their own relationship with drugs] and not to judge others. It is judgement free and it’s up to the individual,” she explained. “There’s a level of compassion that needs to happen as well.”
As director for the health promotion programs at Springfield College, Beale makes a conscientious effort to reassure her students that substance abuse is more common than one would think. All of her classes are confidential, so that no one feels ashamed of their situation or first hand experiences.
“It’s a universal phenomenon – people like getting high,” said Beale. “They like to have an altered consciousness. The number one reason for using drugs is [to have] fun. It’s up there with thirst, hunger, sex, food, and the only culture that didn’t use drugs were the Eskimos, because they couldn’t grow it.”
When asked about specific substances that have trended as an issue in the area, Beale explained, “[Springfield College] in comparison to other schools is not bad at all. Students tend to have their priorities right most of the time, and want to do right by their parents.”
Before each class, Beale has her students do a warm up exercise, where they stand up and she asks them a series of questions to make the content more relatable. During one class she posed the question, “What are the three things that make you resilient [so you are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors]?”
Beale recalled, “Majority of them said [they] would disappoint [their] family, and that’s why [they] don’t [do drugs], and that’s really revealing about the students here.”
Although this may be the case, she still has students each year who struggle with addiction.
“[It happens] every semester, where [a student] or a loved one is struggling and it’s causing them a lot of stress and anxiety,” said Beale. “I’ve lost some students here, [and] I have no idea where they are or what happened to them. I teach fifty kids, chances are I always have at least one.”
At times Beale is saddened by this, but it only further motivates her to keep learning and dissecting different aspects of substance abuse prevention.
“The field stays the same, but it is always evolving,” said Beale brightly. “It’s fascinating. For instance, the marijuana laws are changing right now and that is interesting. I’m fortunate to be in a field where there’s so many different ways you can address [issues].”
Beale previously worked for the Lawrence Drug Court in Massachusetts, Boston Medical Center, helped put together a drug education curriculum for the Boston school department, assisted in writing the state plan on substance abuse prevention for the state of Massachusetts, and even traveled to the Netherlands to study public health with those in charge of making decisions regarding the opioid epidemic. She discovered that the United States has a long way to go, but government policies are improving to decrease the amount of tragedies related to drug abuse.
“Here in this country we tend to have a no tolerance policy, which is a criminal justice response, which is why we have so many people in jail,” Beale explained. “[But] the U.S. is adapting the Harm Reduction policies with needle exchange [and] injection sites to help cut down on the harm, so that’s a public health response.”
Constantly brimming with enthusiasm and charismatic interest, Beale is never bored with her work. In order to keep a healthy balance in her life and avoid unhealthy habits, she sea kayaks and eventually makes her way from Nova Scotia down to the end of Connecticut. Beale has not passed her prime, and is still ripe with hope for the future of her profession.
“I’m working on my second textbook with Johns Hopkins on community health, and then I’m taking students to Cuba to look at their healthcare,” Beale stated. “This field has so many options. Maybe in five years [I’ll still be teaching], but maybe not.”
For Beale, each academic year is different from the next because each group of students are unique. They keep her passionate, and Beale’s desire to learn alongside them is a journey of discovery she intends to continue.
Substance abuse does not have a single answer or one preventative method that works for everyone, but Beale helps to reassure each one of her students that they are not alone.
Photo courtesy of Leslie Beale