Marshall offers class to teach students about drug addiction

Marshall University students will have the opportunity in fall 2017 to learn about the history and psychology of drug addiction.

The special topics course will be co-taught by Dr. Chris White from the history department and Dr. Jonathan Day-Brown in the psychology department. Both White and Day-Brown have been studying drugs and drug addiction for multiple years.

“Well, I started as an undergraduate student,” Day-Brown said. “Probably back in 2002 or 2003, somewhere in that range. I worked in a lab as an undergrad; we gave different drugs to rodents and then we measured their locomotive behavior and their social interactions — rats are very social — so we would give them drugs and measure that behavior.”

“I got started as an undergrad too, around 1998,” White said. “That’s when I started to read more and more about it because I was interested in U.S. and Latin America relations and the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America after the Cold War was kind of guided by the drug war — so fighting against cartels and the flow of the drugs that are actually not as dangerous as pharmaceuticals, but focusing military efforts down there was interesting to me, especially just getting out of the Marine Corps.”

Day-Brown said his undergraduate research focused on neurotransmitter systems and how various drugs affect the brain via various chemical receptors.

“We were trying to block those different receptors to see if we could get different effects of drugs on their [rodents’] social and locomotive behaviors — two very measurable outcomes,” Day-Brown said.

White and Day-Brown said they met by chance, but very quickly had conversations about drugs and addiction, learning they shared some of the same views.

“We realized that the two of us together, and bringing in some other folks as well that we thought really offered something for students across the university, not just working with our isolated disciplines,” Day-Brown said. “This is such a complicated, complex problem that it requires people from all disciplines to be working on this — people who are in the college of business could be working on this because they can talk to us about the economics of drug use. We’re not just thinking about therapeutic interventions, we want to think about what happens before that.”

In part, the class serves to clear up some misconceptions people have about the psychology of drug addiction. Day-Brown said oftentimes people look at drugs and how they interact with the brain in the wrong way.

“I think students think of all drugs as the same,” Day-Brown said. “They put all drugs in these categories and they think ‘well, all of these drugs must do the same thing and they’re all equally damaging or bad, and they all have the same effects on the brain,’ but they’re very, very complicated effects on the brain. Drugs like LSD, a lot of the plants that are used in what you might call traditional societies for some of their religious rituals and so forth — these carry no addictive potential and yet a lot of those are still classified and grouped with a lot of the other drugs that have high addictive potentials.”

White has taught a class on the history and effect of the drug wars at Marshall for 10 years. He said his philosophy in that class and this special topics course are very much one in the same.

“When I first started teaching the class, I wanted to inform people about the drug cartels and gangs and how they’ve been formed in the United States and how the response to it has actually caused more violence and drug addiction itself,” White said. “The deaths are getting worse as you criminalize more and more — that’s what all the historians who look at this say. But as I taught, I realized more and more people are dying of drugs, and some of those people are even Marshall students and that’s what people wanted to think more about. My philosophy is trying to combine looking at the drug war, as well as the psychology and history of addiction, too.”

The class’ learning outcomes and lesson plans are still being constructed, but students can expect to learn about the long history of humans and animals alike seeking out substances to alter their consciousness, the link between neurotransmitters and when they’re released in the brain and more information in order to make evidence-based deductions or statements about drug addiction.

White said to increase the number of critical thinkers in the course, it will be available to everyone. He also said part of the course will rely on materials and knowledge gained from sources outside of the history and psychology departments.

“We’ve looked at other programs around the country that are called addiction studies, whether they are majors, minors or just certificates, and what I’ve seen uniformly is that they’re trying to train counselors — so our counseling department, social work department, psychology, they’ve got that track already, producing professionals in that area,” White said. “What we’re trying to do here is really produce new thinkers and also to get people thinking differently. Maybe it’s not all about treatment — treatment is good, but wouldn’t it be great if people in that area, who are interested into going into treatment could also learn the history of it. I thought we’ve got to get as many people that are interested in this as we can. For example, I reached out to Gary McIlvain in kinesiology because I have read research that shows how some people use exercise to get over addiction.”

Considering West Virginia’s drug crises, Day-Brown said he thinks the class will ultimately be more interesting to people, seeing as they will most likely have personal experience with addiction.

I think we all know someone who has been affected by drug addiction, or addiction in general,” Day-Brown said. “I think we all know someone who has been affected by that negatively and we all probably know someone who has been addicted to a substance and come out from that in a positive light. Both endpoints have happened, so I think it’s a very personal story for people. Hearing from multiple perspectives, hearing how different folks are approaching this gives people tools so they can go out and solve problems, and think about their world and they can really maybe start to make a positive change and really help people. I think the whole point of this, and this sounds big and flowery, but the point is to make the world better. You have to start with where you are and we’re here right now, and we have a lot of folks who are really studying this from different perspectives.”

White and Day-Brown’s special topics course is part of a future Addiction Studies minor at Marshall. Undergraduate students will find the course under “HST 481/PSY 481.” Graduate students can also register for the course under “HST 581/PSY 581.” The course will be taught once a week, Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 6:20 p.m.

Will Izzo can be contacted at [email protected].