For our final Opioid Epidemic Hero of the Month, we would like to introduce Jennifer Brya! Jennifer is a mental health clinician by training, and has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology. She entered the field of mental health and addiction treatment after watching her father struggle to overcome depression, alcoholism and chronic medical conditions. He ultimately died from his disease of addiction and Jennifer was motivated to work with individuals struggling with addiction to seek treatment and recovery so they can live a happy and fulfilling life.
As a clinician, Jennifer worked with adolescents in drug treatment who were mandated to treatment by the juvenile justice system. While working with justice-involved youth, she noticed that the various sectors involved with this population – child welfare, mental health, education, and criminal justice did not communicate well with each other or coordinate on services and treatment planning. She observed firsthand that despite the involvement of multiple systems of care, these youth facing complex challenges often slipped through the cracks and did not get the help and treatment they needed.
After working in direct service as a clinician, her interests shifted towards policy and program evaluation to understand what programs and strategies could make an impact on the broader system of care and improve outcomes for people. She later pursued an additional Masters degree in Public Policy with a specialization in health and mental health policy. She applies the same analytical and diagnostic skills acquired in her clinical training, to understanding system-level barriers and gaps to identify opportunities to build capacity and make improvements. Her policy training instilled the importance of data collection and outcome measurement to understand the impact of interventions and programs.
As of right now, Jennifer studies different models of how multi-sector collaboratives can work together to achieve better health outcomes. She currently works at Be-Well OC, helping to facilitate a SUD Leadership Coalition involving stakeholders from addiction treatment, hospitals and health care, health plans, criminal justice and the courts, social services and community-based prevention and advocacy organizations. Part of her work involves working with diverse partners to determine how to create a better system of care so that individuals with substance use disorders are able to access high quality care when and where they need it. Overall, her work centers around building capacity for addiction and MAT treatment, expanding opportunities for integrated and coordinated care, and improving cross-sector collaboration, with the aim of improving outcomes for individuals struggling with trauma, mental illness, addiction and homelessness.
Although Jennifer currently works in OC, it is not her hometown. She is currently based in Phoenix, AZ where she has worked as a consultant for 20 years. Her career led her to work in 35 counties in California from San Diego all the way to Del Norte. Jennifer came to Orange County before Be Well OC was established, and supported its development and growth along with many stakeholders pursuing a common vision to improve the mental health system in Orange County. Now, through Be Well OC she helps partners align their activities, including collaborating on funding opportunities through state, county philanthropic grants. According to Jennifer, OC has all of the ingredients – vision, resources, and organizational partners, to create successful collaborations and make positive, lasting change within the community.
Jennifer believes that all communities have strengths, but the biggest strength a community can have is leadership that aligns their priorities and realizes they will have a greater impact by working together rather than in isolation or as competitors. Complex social problems like addiction, homelessness, and suicide need all community partners to come together and each do their part in order to make a difference. This was one reason she began Desert Vista Consulting, a consulting firm that has been in the integrated healthcare space since 2007. In this firm, Jennifer has supported communities and cross-sector partners across California through strategic planning, capacity building, and facilitating statewide learning communities – to build trust and collaboration among community partners, which is a precursor to improving community health outcomes.
Jennifer mentioned that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the barriers to treatment for OUD patients were heightened. This required significant creativity and ingenuity from community healthcare providers to rapidly shift to a tele-health format. Shifting to tele-health for MAT treatment during the pandemic actually reduced patient no-show rates and FQHCs were able to ensure continuity of care for patients. Community-based outreach to engage youth and adults into treatment was impacted significantly as outreach partners were not able to go into schools, justice settings and shelters to establish referral pathways and warm handoffs to treatment.
One barrier that Jennifer noticed many OUD patients face is knowing that help exists, and that there are evidence based practices/treatments which are able to assist those struggling with opioid abuse and addiction. Similarly, an additional barrier is knowing where to obtain treatment. Often, when individuals transition from one place to another, they will lose continuity of care. This is particularly common for individuals receiving care in prisons and hospitals. Jennifer highlighted that stigma is still a major barrier as there is stigma across communities, causing a lot of people to not be ready to get treatment for OUD. MAT therapy is becoming more available but not everyone is aware. General education is needed across the community about the availability and benefit of treatment. It is also important to address stigma in the provider and mental health provider community, as some providers are still cautious to work with addicted populations. Even though OC is building MAT capacity among the provider community, there are still barriers to providing this treatment to some patients such as adolescents, pregnant women and individuals with complex, chronic medical conditions.
Jennifer suggested that an important strategy in addressing stigma is to give people the space to tell their stories. This will help remind others that individuals living with addiction are real people, and many have experienced trauma earlier in life. She said it is important to acknowledge the pain people are experiencing as a result of past and cumulative trauma and how this can lead to substance use as a means of coping. Understanding people’s stories helps us cultivate empathy, build compassion and remove the judgment and stigma often placed on those trying to heal.
Accomplishments, Future Plans, and Shoutouts
Some of Jennifer’s favorite things about what she does is meeting with individuals and organizations that are able to work together well. Recently, on a team call with her KCS Health Center and Multi-Ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies (MECCA) colleagues, they were able to utilize their formalized relationship to resolve each other’s organizational challenges around community outreach and engagement through collaboration. Jennifer also enjoys hearing the recovery stories of individuals and elevating them to a higher platform. Working at Be Well OC provides her with the perfect platform for people to tell stories of recovery and resilience, as well as for her to address stigma, cultivate empathy, and showcase individuals on their recovery journey.
Jennifer would like to shoutout KCS Health Center, a clinical partner of Be Well OC, as well as MECCA, a community-based partner of Be Well OC, for their amazing collaboration and work with substance abuse education, prevention and treatment. She would also like to shout out the MAT Connect project, which is funded by CalOptima. Jewel Loff heads this project, which is currently working with FQHCs to expand MAT capacity across FQHCs. Currently there are 9 Federally Qualified Health Centers in OC that have providers that are trained and able to provide MAT to patients with OUD.
Jennifer’s advice for those seeking to join this field of work is to understand how challenging it can be working with individuals experiencing trauma and pain. It is very important to invest in self care so you can continue to advocate for others. Whether you are working with individuals or organizations, working in the addiction treatment field is a marathon not a sprint, so find ways to support your own mental health and resilience. It is equally important to maintain the empathy that you start with when entering the field, and to stay curious. A good way to do so is to look outside your organization and not get locked into your own four walls. Jennifer maintains that it is essential to understand everybody else’s role in the system. Ultimately, Jennifer has provided us the wisdom that if you engage in your work from a place of compassion, and honor the dignity of people you are working with, you will be able to accomplish your goals and contribute significantly to your community.
Is there an Opioid Epidemic Hero in your community in Orange County? If so, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org! We would love to include them in our series.
Opioid Hero of the Month: December 2021