COVID-19 has had plenty of adverse effects on Americans with one issue being an increase in substance abuse.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) it is estimated that 25.9 million people who use alcohol and 10.9 million people who use drugs other than alcohol reported they were using these substances “a little more or much more” than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 
Vanessa Betancourt, senior in the College of Nursing, has made it her life’s mission to give those individuals struggling with substance use disorder a second chance.
Betancourt began nursing school with the desire to one day become a neonatal nurse, but her passion quickly shifted as she started her nursing education.
As a part of the nursing curriculum, students are required to spend time in an Academic Service-Learning environment. Betancourt was assigned to Positively Living, a nonprofit organization serving East Tennessee’s most vulnerable populations, including those who inject drugs.
Betancourt became actively involved in the Harm Reduction program which uses practical strategies to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use and improve an individual’s overall health and wellness. The goal of the program is to provide nonjudgmental care and access to personalized resources that meet the needs of people who use substances.
“The Harm Reduction team at Positively Living welcomed me with open arms,” said Betancourt. “They took me under their wing and showed me what it really means to be an advocate for people in active addiction.”
Several specific life experiences contributed to Betancourt’s ability to empathize with stigmatized populations.
“Helping break the cycle of addiction is something that is very personal to me,” said Betancourt. “I have a family history of substance misuse and I have personally seen the effects of what substance use disorder has on a family generationally.”
During her time on the Harm Reduction team, Betancourt learned that a lot of people see being addicted to a substance as a daily choice. It is so much more than that.
“When a person is truly addicted to a substance it rewires and changes the brain’s reward center causing intense cravings and symptoms of withdrawal that cause physical pain,” Betancourt says. “It takes approximately 18 months after discontinuing opioid misuse for your dopamine receptors to return to normal. This means that a life in recovery is an ongoing process.”
Betancourt says her empathy has created the passion she has to be a part of the nursing profession, and to work to provide those with health disparities equitable care.
“People with substance use disorder deserve equity in their healthcare,” says Betancourt. “In order to make this happen there must be a change in how addiction is viewed. We must start having conversations so that people can see that substance use disorder is not a moral weakness but a chronic disease.”
Betancourt will pursue a career as an addiction medicine nurse. She was also accepted into the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program at the College of Nursing and will begin her studies in the fall.
“Vanessa is an inspiring student,” said Jennifer Tourville, executive director of the UT Institute for Public Service SMART Initiative. “She is leading by example and advocating for the change that is needed to properly address the consequences of the opioid crisis. She will do great things and improve many lives along the way!”
As a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner specializing in addiction medicine, Betancourt will be able to ensure that patients and community members are breaking the cycle of addiction by working to destigmatize substance use disorder through conversation and public recovery events and treatment resources.
“Addiction does not have to win, people can recover,” says Betancourt. “I will be a nurse that creates a safe space for all people to be cared for, seen, and heard. I hope to use my career to inspire other nurses and health care professionals to join the fight against the opioid crisis simply by giving people with substance use disorder the patient centered care they deserve.”
CONTACT: Kara Clark Cardwell (email@example.com, 865-974-9498)
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health