One day about four years ago, Steffanie Strathdee sat in her Vancouver, Canada, home reading The Corner, a book that chronicles a year on the corner of Fayette and Monroe streets, one of Baltimore's most notorious open-air drug markets.
Strathdee, who was then a faculty member at the University of British Columbia, says that more than just a good read, The Corner became her main motivation for wanting to relocate to Charm City and work at Johns Hopkins.
"Even before I put [the book] down, I said to myself, This city needs help," says Strathdee, now an associate professor in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research on drug users dates back to 1988.
Strathdee says she was particularly inspired by the story of Fran Boyd, a main character in The Corner, who despite a series of relapses and being repeatedly turned away by filled-up drug treatment centers, was eventually able to enter an effective program and manage her heroin addiction. Boyd's story, Strathdee says, is a shining example that alcohol and drug abusers can overcome their addictions through treatment, if provided with the proper support and encouragement.
Wanting to amplify this message, Strathdee last year became the medical spokesperson for Project Lift, a new United Way of Central Maryland initiative that promotes the success and effectiveness of the region's alcohol and drug treatment system through a comprehensive public education and awareness campaign.
Specifically, Project Lift broadcasts its plea for support by way of the media, community outreach efforts, television and radio public service announcements and its Web site, which provides the most current research data and information on local treatment facilities. This month, Project Lift sponsored an all-day symposium for Maryland employers that featured sessions on ways to identify and support employees who need assistance, strategies to ensure that people get the help they need and evidence of the effectiveness of treatment.
According to Project Lift's statistics from the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research, criminal activity decreases by 80 percent after treatment, more than 75 percent of those who complete treatment remain drug-free, and for every $1 spent on treatment, $7 is saved on crime and health care-related costs.
Strathdee says that despite this wealth of evidence, a sizable portion of the public remains unconvinced that drug treatment can be effective and needs to be a priority.
"In general, taxpayers don't want to support drug treatment. Part of the reason why is a not-in-my-backyard mentality, but there is also a deep-seated stigma attached to treatment," says Strathdee, who currently oversees seven JHU research projects involving injection drug users in Baltimore and overseas.
Rada Moss, community initiative administrator with the United Way of Central Maryland, says that many people see alcohol and drug addiction not as a disease but as an issue of self-control and will.
"There is also a population out there that sees addiction as a city or poor person's issue, but it should be everybody's issue," Moss says. "This is where Project Lift comes in. We reach out and talk to people who are not convinced that treatment is effective, letting them know that it indeed works and is a viable option."
Moss says that Strathdee's contribution to Project Lift has been "invaluable" and refers to the Bloomberg School professor as the initiative's "resident expert" who is able to offer perspective on the latest information and data.
At Johns Hopkins, Strathdee's research is focused both on stopping the spread of blood-borne infections and on helping drug users get into treatment. It's an uphill climb, Strathdee says, pointing to a report released two years ago that claimed that one in eight Baltimore adults was addicted to heroin and that only one in five drug users was receiving some form of treatment.
"The problem is just mind-boggling," she says. "That is why we need the community to bond together and support the work that is being done."
Strathdee says that two keys to treating addiction are the proper assessment of the individual and connecting that person with the appropriate facility. However, there is currently a critical shortage of treatment slots, Strathdee says, and more money is needed to expand existing centers or open new ones.
While Project Lift does not directly subsidize treatment centers, Moss says that by raising awareness the initiative hopes to create a "ground swell of support" that will attract both public dollars and volunteers to help staff the various treatment facilities.
Strathdee says those at Hopkins can support Project Lift either through their United Way campaign contributions or by volunteering at a local substance-abuse and treatment program.
"I think that it's only through hands-on experience that people can really see the moment-to-moment obstacles that stand in the way of someone's recovery from addiction," she says.
Although Strathdee says that she is reminded every day through the work she does why she came to Baltimore, she was "fortunate enough" last year to come face to face with her inspiration.
"I actually met Fran Boyd, who at the time was working in a drug treatment center, and I went up to her and told her she was the reason I moved to Baltimore and that she was my hero," she says. "She smiled and said, "Well, if you came all the way here to help, that makes you mine."
For more information on Project Lift, go to http://www.projectlift.org.