Stephanie Armbrister Strutner (E&H ’02) is an Epidemiologist

Posted by Beth Funkhouser
But that may not mean exactly what you think.

When Stephanie Armbrister Strutner tells people she’s an epidemiologist these days, people assume she is particularly busy. But she was busy long before there was a Coronavirus epidemic.

Stephanie’s work focuses on substance use issues – particularly, the misuse of opioids. Stephanie explains her profession this way: “Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of disease. Epidemiology was born out of the work done by a man named John Snow during the cholera outbreak in London in 1854: he was able to put an end to the cholera outbreak by tracking down the water source where it began. We still use many of those same techniques, and by tracing causes and gathering information, it allows us to make data-driven decisions about how to proceed.”

Stephanie is the Executive Director of ASAP of Anderson in Clinton, Tennessee; an organization that aims to prevent and reduce substance use among youth and adults. Her successful work has been widely recognized by the community and even the media as she is called upon regularly for information and guest lectures. She was named National Advocate of the Year by Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) in 2015, and the coalition she operates was named Coalition of the Year for milestones achieved, also by CADCA in 2015. Stephanie was recently called to Washington, DC by President Trump for a meeting in the West Wing to report directly to the White House effective local strategies for opioid misuse prevention.

As she seeks to identify strategies for helping people move past problems with opioid use it is important to seek out the reasons for misuse and the community issues that either contribute to the problem or detract from the solutions. To that end, she has a long list of ways in which her organization seeks to stop misuse before it begins – including “…educating health care workers about alternative pain treatment that doesn’t include opioid use, and increasing the ability for patients to have access to those alternative treatments. We also look at an increase in punishment for those who unlawfully sell opioids. And we sponsor a host of community engagement activities for young people.”

Much of her work centers around getting families to talk openly and honestly about mental health and substance misuse issues in a way that will lead to treatment. “If someone gets diagnosed with cancer, they talk about it, and they get treatment. The same isn’t true about mental health, and it impedes proper treatment.”

Now, there is an additional challenge of a pandemic. But Stephanie says their work is continuing even if meetings, trainings, and counseling sessions are digital. “For instance, I was still able to attend a county commission meeting last week and was able to advocate for meaningful policy.”

One surprise from COVID-19 is that there may be a higher infection rate for those who have a suppressed immune system from smoking marijuana or tobacco, or from vaping. Cocaine use also impacts the immune system and lowers the function of vital organs – putting a person at greater risk for COVID-19 complications. “Also, treatment rates for drug use are even lower now because they’re worried that going to a treatment facility will lead to contracting the virus, and also because many people seem to be self-medicating to cope with this stress and crisis. “I would argue that few of us are equipped to know how to manage this situation – so a person with substance use issues may be more vulnerable right now.”

Stephanie is the first to admit that changing habits is difficult, but she likes to encourage everyone to take the steps necessary for good self-care – perhaps right now more than ever. You can find out more about resources at the ASAP of Anderson webpage. And you can hear a full interview with Stephanie at 6:30 pm Thursday, May 7, on WEHC-FM (available streaming from their website).

  • Stephanie Armbrister Strutner at the White House when she was called to make a report to the West Wing about opioid use.

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