“Everyone deserves that chance:” Brian Thompson on his goals for the NJ Opioid Recovery and Remediation Advisory Council

Hannah Mogul-Adlin, Senior Communications Manager

Strengthening ecosystems of care Behavioral health & addiction Policy & advocacy SDOH & health equity

In late December 2022, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced appointments to the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Advisory Council. The Advisory Council will provide recommendations for how the state can best use the $600M in settlement funds it will receive from opioid manufacturers and distributors over the next two decades to combat the opioid epidemic.  

This is a huge opportunity to address the devastation that the opioid epidemic has caused for individuals, families, and communities across NJ. We are thrilled that two of the ten appointees are former or current Camden Coalition staffers: Mavis Asiedu-Frimpong, former Senior Director at the Camden Coalition and current Director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University—Camden; and Brian Thompson, Housing Coordinator at the Camden Coalition. 

Brian joined the Camden Coalition in 2017 as a community health worker for our Camden Core Model care management program, and now manages housing location, applications, and maintenance for participants in our Housing First and other care management programs. We interviewed Brian about the experience and vision he will bring to the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Advisory Council, including what works for individuals struggling with substance use disorders in NJ and what some of their biggest unmet needs are right now. Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell me a little bit about your background — how did you end up at the Camden Coalition?

I’m a person that is still in recovery from a substance use disorder. I’ve experienced homelessness. I’ve been through a lot of the things our participants deal with on a daily basis, like inequities in different systems.  

Once I got some long-term sobriety under my belt, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next in my professional life, and how I could use what I’ve learned to help the next guy or girl suffering with this disease of addiction. And how I could give them some hope that they can get through this with hard work and perseverance. 

I actually ended up at the Camden Coalition through my DCPP [New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency] worker. As my case was closing out and I was getting my son back, my case manager told me about the community health worker position at the Camden Coalition. She thought that based off everything I’ve been through, my experiences, and knowing the systems, I’d be a good fit. So with that person’s encouragement I submitted my resume. In the interview I was just honest… this is who I am, this is how I think I can help. 

I’m just so grateful that I took the chance to submit that resume because it’s been the best decision I’ve made in my life professionally. I love the work we do. I love the participants I get to interact with.  

What drives you to keep doing this work?

My drive is just to continue to help someone each day. I’ve seen the destruction, the inequities, how people are not getting the proper care for substance use disorders. That’s what keeps me wanting to do this work every day and keeps me so passionate about it — just to help the next person and give them that opportunity. If you’re given that opportunity and you work hard, I believe people can do great things with it. Everyone deserves that chance.  

In the video below, Brian talks with Camden Core Model participant Charlie Vasquez about how they have taken turns caring for each other as both struggled with substance use disorders: 

Based on your experience and your work with our program participants, what are some of the common needs of people struggling with opioid addiction in New Jersey?

One of the most common needs is stable housing. It’s almost impossible to maintain sobriety without a stable living situation. If you don’t have a stable housing situation, if you’re experiencing homelessness, at that point you’re just meeting your most basic needs — and nine times out of ten you’re also trying to escape the reality that you’re in, trying to numb yourself from the existence that you have to live in, day in and day out. So more housing would be number one. 

Another common theme I see folks struggle with is the lack of beds available in detox and inpatient programs, and the limited amount of time people are afforded in those centers. Thirty days is not enough time a lot of the time. People need more time to get themselves able to address the traumatic experiences they’ve been through. It takes more than 30 days; it takes years sometimes.  

We need to give people a little bit more time to work on themselves, to get a little bit more foundation underneath them before we send them back out into the world to try to overcome this awful disease of addiction. We need more tools in the toolbox to be successful.  

Hopefully, with some of this money that’s coming in from the pharmaceutical companies — maybe that’s one of the avenues the Advisory Council can explore. More funding could help people get a little more counseling and education before they have to come back out and address the destruction that’s left in the path of someone living with an opioid addiction. 

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about what works for people recovering from opioid addiction? Are there any stories that come to mind?

When I think about what works for people recovering from opioid addiction, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. What worked for me might not work for somebody else. What worked for me was going to meetings, connecting with my sponsor, doing step work — and that might not be for everybody. We need to be mindful that we can’t make everyone do the same thing and think it’s going to work.  

We have to have broad thinking when it comes to helping someone who is recovering from opioid addiction:  

Is it going back to school? Is it keeping them busy? Is it getting them into work? Is it addressing some of the traumatic experiences they went through? Is it medications for addiction treatment [MAT]? Some of those things work for some folks and some don’t. So when we’re addressing addiction we need to look at all aspects of what can really help someone get into sustained, long-term recovery and keep them there. 

I know what works for some of our Housing First participants is staying connected to the Housing First men’s support group meetings we have every week. That’s huge for them, just having that sense of camaraderie and fellowship. It’s a safe space to talk about anything they’re struggling through, and to celebrate and recognize their wins. When I’m thinking about my journey and all of our participants’ journeys through recovery, a group setting amongst peers that are going through what they’ve gone through is really important. It lets them feel comfortable in sharing things that sometimes they can’t share with other folks. 

[As a peer or a provider,] it’s also just being available, having your phone on, listening — just being a human being sometimes. Having that compassion, that empathy, and just telling someone that you love them and you care about them and that they’re worth something —that goes a long way. 

Another important thing is being able to deal with some of the things that are keeping you sick. When you’re not addressing some of those mental issues, or some of the things that you did when you were in active addiction that you carry with you, it can lead to relapse. 

Another wonderful technique I’ve learned about since joining the Camden Coalition is harm reduction. If we know folks are going to use drugs, how can we keep them safe and keep them protected? We provide them with clean syringes, education, Narcan. I would love to see a safe injection site open up around the area. I don’t think we’re there yet as a society, but that’s something we should strive toward, because every life has value and should be treated with respect and dignity.  

Through a harm reduction lens, we just provide those services, and then hopefully one day they’re ready to make that change. It’s been so awesome to learn those techniques through the years, and just to see a big push around keeping people safe, even if they’re going to use substances. 

How are you hoping your lived experience and professional experience will benefit the work of the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Advisory Council?

I’m hoping I can use my past lived experience with substance use disorder to bring to the forefront the things that were lacking for me when I was in my active addiction and that I think would help folks that are in that position now. And on the flip side, from a professional lens, keeping the things that I’ve seen do work in place.  

We’ve made so much progress in the past five years in the way we treat folks with a substance use disorder. The idea that housing is healthcare has flipped so much in our minds. When I was going through it, the services were not out there. Fast forward five, six years and as a professional I’m seeing all these wonderful programs out there and seeing how they really help somebody get from where they’re at to where they want to be.  

I’m a living testament to the benefit of having people in my corner, having programs in my corner that helped me get to this point in my life. I’m a living testament to what that can do to somebody’s trajectory. And now I can hopefully inform policy and change at a broader scale on the political level. I just want to use all my experiences, good and bad, and bring them to the Advisory Council to hopefully shape some of the things that we’re doing.  

It’s such a great collective group of folks we have on the Advisory Council: some doctors, some other folks with lived experience, some folks from the Harm Reduction Coalition, and some folks that I don’t know but I’ve heard wonderful things about. And [former Camden Coalition staffer] Mavis is on there too, which is awesome. We’ve got some very intelligent, wonderful, compassionate folks on there, and I think we’re gonna do some great work in the upcoming months. 

What are your goals as you begin your work with the Advisory Council? What are your hopes for what the Advisory Council can achieve?

I’ve been thinking about how we could use this money in a positive way to help people that are not getting the help that they need — those folks that slip through the cracks. Can we use some of this money to fund places to keep folks in stable housing as they begin this journey of recovery? 

So many people have experienced the destruction and the negative consequences of the opioid crisis, and many are still experiencing it day in and day out. Hopefully we can save some lives, because we’re losing way too many lives to this awful, awful disease.  

Is it education? Is it getting out more Narcan? I’m open to any and all ideas, and I’m hoping the Advisory Council is too. We’re going to have to think outside of the box — this is an issue that’s weighing down on a lot of families and just destroying so many people. It’s so sad to see. 

Hopefully we can help some people piece their lives together, get connected back to their families, do some good, uplift some people, and just give them a chance and an opportunity to have a positive outcome in their life.