Opioids, Overdoses, and Recovery on Campus

By Kathryn Lundstrom
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
MA Student in Journalism
UT Austin Moody College of Communication


In college at Duke, Lori Holleran Steiker noticed warning signs in her drinking that harkened back to her mother’s drug and alcohol problems. That prompted Holleran Steiker to get sober. She’s been living in recovery ever since.

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Fast forward to today. As a professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, Holleran Steiker is working to understand and reduce the risk of student addiction and overdose. Much of her work is focused on the particular dangers of opioid abuse.

Opioid prescriptions, and deaths, quadrupled between 1999 and 2008. In 2016, the CDC reported over 63,000 lethal drug overdoses, two thirds of which involved opioids.

Texas is no exception: the state’s seen a nearly 300 percent increase in lethal opioid overdoses in the last two decades and ranks second in the nation for untreated heroin and painkiller abuse.

Holleran Steiker’s work at UT Austin attempts to reverse these trends through harm reduction and prevention programs on campus and throughout the state. In 2015, she co-founded University High School, Central Texas’ first recovery high school. Located at the edge of the UT Austin campus, the school provides a sober environment for students to pursue academic goals away from environments that may have triggered or enabled their initial drug use. Since it began, over 18 students have graduated. This year, two were accepted to UT Austin.

Also in 2015, Holleran Steiker helped bring together a local Recovery Oriented Community Collaborative (ROCC), a group of community leaders involved in different aspects of recovery services and supports. The group has been meeting and coordinating regularly since then.

“We all felt the need for a sort of ‘Professional Home Group’ to bring agencies together,” said Holleran Steiker. “The larger purpose has been to be sure that we are neither so siloed nor so competitive that we can’t think about where a person in need or client will be best served. It has broken down so many of the silos between community agencies and disciplines.”  

This year, Holleran Steiker and her colleague Lucas Hill led the expansion of Operation Naloxone. The project distributes Naloxone (also known as Narcan), a life-saving overdose medication, throughout the state. It also conducts trainings on how to administer it.

“At UT Austin,” she said, “we trained all of the Resident Advisors, the entire campus Police Department, and a critical mass of students across campus, starting with students in the Schools of Pharmacy and Social Work, and with my own ‘Young People and Drugs’ course.”

Throughout April and May, Holleran Steiker directed the Youth Substance Misuse and Addiction Pop-Up Institute, one of a series of “pop-up” institutes convened at UT Austin to bring together experts from multiple disciplines to tackle one big problem.  Steiker’s Pop-Up brought together social workers, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, counselors, research scientists, educators, health communication experts, and others from around campus and in the community to discuss treatment strategies. Holleran Steiker is enthusiastic about the collaboration.

Part of the battle, said Holleran Steiker, is confronting the shame that many young people feel about their dependence, and getting them to talk about their experiences with these drugs and the dangers they face.

“You need to know,” Holleran Steiker told a group of students this spring, “that opioids can and do cause overdose on college campuses.”

Her focus on awareness, harm reduction, prevention and interdisciplinary cooperation lays a promising foundation for putting an end to the opioid crisis.

“The problem is complex and so are the solutions,” she Holleran Steiker. “We have finally brought all of the researchers, students, and community agencies and leaders together to start putting the pieces together––we are collaborating with a true bio-psycho-social-spiritual paradigm.”