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Pill-testing at Festivals’ and ‘Recovery Buddy Coaching’ –brings innovative thinking and experience to Drugs Task Force

The announcement of Dr. Jo-Hanna Ivers as a member of a new task force to deal with drug and substance use within higher education institutions reflects the pioneering work she continues to undertake in the addiction arena.

The task force has been created by Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who explained, “I am setting up a group of experts, including academics, gardaí, students and first responders within institutions, who are going to consider what the key issues that are facing us are, and what the solutions will be,” she said.

‘Recovery’ makes it into the National Drugs Strategy

Dr. Ivers is certainly well-positioned to make a strong contribution to the action plan. Her work is centred on addiction recovery and her first contribution to public policy came with her input to the National Drugs Strategy. “Prior to 2017, the focus was entirely on harm reduction and containment,” said Dr. Ivers. “Back in the 1980s people were dying of hepatitis and HIV, so the strategy was entirely built around harm reduction - clean needles and stopping people from dying - as opposed to recovery. It may sound extraordinary, but it was never amended. So, I was glad to secure backing for the recovery model in the renewed strategy, which has been a major theme in my research.”

But access to Detoxification facilities is a problem

One result of this delayed strategic rethink is that it is very difficult for those that want to detoxify to access the service. In 2015, Dr. Ivers conducted a national detox study that showed that less than 2% of people on the central treatment list (Methadone) that wanted to get clean from drugs, were actually allowed access to a detoxification bed. “This is not a trivial matter because going through detox alone is a dangerous exercise. If someone detoxifies but isn’t ready for it, there is a danger of overdosing and dying” explains Dr. Ivers.

Can a ‘Recovery Buddy’ system work in Ireland?

She is currently seeking funding for a research project that aims to establish how that a Recovery Coach (or ‘buddy’) system can be effective in leading to addiction recovery and how such a system would be structured in an Irish context. Recovery Coaches are recovered addicts that support an addict through their own recovery journey, having successfully come through the experience themselves. This is an approach that has worked well in homelessness and mental health and Dr. Ivers is looking to investigate if it can be effective in the addiction arena too.

Controversial Research into Safe Drug Use

Dr. Ivers is also the academic lead in a potentially controversial campaign around safe drug use – ‘Start Low and Go Slow’. This HSE-led group researched drug-taking behaviours at festivals last year – specifically what drugs people were taking, in what quantities, whether they engaged in risky sex and whether they would avail of a pill-testing service if it were available. The pill testing service idea is that people could present their drugs at a testing facility at a festival to check if their pills are safe or not, with announcements made as to what drugs on the premises were and were not safe to take. A second option is to have that service available ahead of the event in a city centre location. In particular, the involvement of the Gárdai in a scheme like this could place them in a legal grey area, so Ireland’s position on all of that is being looked at.

Finally, Dr. Ivers is also participating in an international study with colleagues in Bulgaria, India, Pakistan and the USA. This is examining the neurocognitive functioning of opiate dependents against a control group of matched siblings.

The appointment to the Higher Education task force on Substance use adds to an already heavy workload on top of her lecturing, but she says “The opportunity to contribute to this group given my experience and insights was not one that I was going to pass up. We are already making significant headway and I am looking forward to seeing an integrated plan being put in place that really makes a difference.”

About Dr. Jo-Hanna Ivers

Dr Jo-Hanna Ivers is an Assistant Professor in Addiction at the Department of Public Health & Primary Care, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin. Her research interest includes addiction, recovery, neuropsychological functioning and homelessness. Jo-Hanna has specific training and vast experience in a wide range of research methodologies including qualitative and quantitative methods, neuroimaging processes and behavioural interventions. A significant component of Jo-Hanna's research is outcome and process evaluations within the Health Services and across national programmes, the majority of which, have led to direct changes in both policy and practice. She is the Course Coordinator of the Masters in Addiction Recovery at Trinity College. She leads the Addiction Research Group at the Department of Public Health & Primary Care, at the Institute of population Health in TCD.

About the task force to deal with drug and substance use within higher education institutions

The rapid response group tasked with devising an action plan to deal with drug and substance use within the country’s higher education institutions will be chaired by Dr Andrew Power, registrar and the vice president of Equality and Diversity, The Institute of Art Design and Technology.

Other members of the group will include Dr Michael Byrne, Head of the Student Health Department, UCC; Dr Eamon Keenan, National Clinical Lead-Addiction Services, National Social Inclusion Office, HSE; Paul Moriarty, Director of Student Experience, UCC; Mai Fanning, president, National Parents Council Post Primary; John Hannon, Director of Student Services, NUI Galway; Fr Ben Hughes, chaplain, NUI Galway; Róisín O’Donovan, vice president Welfare Officer, USI; Jimmy McGovern, Seas Suas Programme Manager, NUI Galway; John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner, Special Crime Operations, An Garda Síochána; Orla McPartlin, Assistant Commissioner, Community Engagement and Public Safety; Roisin O’ Connell, Head of Communications, THEA; Lia O’Sullivan, Communications and Projects Manager, IUA; Dr Jo-Hanna Ivers, Assistant Professor in Addiction, TCD; Professor Mary Cannon, Psychiatrist, RCSI; Terry Twomey, VP Academic Affairs and Registrar, LIT; Meabh McGuinness, Education Project Manager, HSE (Healthy Ireland); Gertie Raftery, chairperson, Psychological Councillors in Higher Education Ireland; and Nicki Killeen, Development Worker, National Social Inclusion Office, HSE.