Steinhardt Alumna Addresses Opioid Epidemic Through Drama Therapy

How can the arts be used to tackle the opioid epidemic, one of America’s most prominent health issues? Ana Bess Moyer Bell (MA ’16), Drama Therapy program alumna and founder of nonprofit COAAST (Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together), is using therapeutic theatre to fight stigma around addiction and foster a supportive community for those who have lost their loved ones to substance abuse.

In October 2017, COAAST partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Health and received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create a statewide prevention program and educational videos that destigmatize addiction and educate the public about the dangers of drug use in an engaging way.

We spoke with Ana about her nonprofit and how she is using drama therapy as a means to fight the opioid epidemic.

What motivated you to found COAAST?

Two of my friends passed away due to opioid overdose. Beneath my deep pain and confusion, I felt a drive to do something in memory of them so that their deaths did not go in vain. When you lose someone prematurely to a drug overdose, there are specific feelings which complicate the grieving process: shame, guilt, and isolation. I saw this experience mirrored in the loved ones of my late friends, and on a larger scale within our community.

During my first semester at NYU, I began to fight this stigma with a simple community gathering. I asked participants, “What do we need as a community to heal?” I used drama therapy exercises
that I learned in the classroom to help participants express their emotions surrounding the epidemic in a safe and contained space. The conversations that arose from this initial meeting helped to shape the goals of COAAST: education about addiction, community events to garner support around loss, and destigmatization.

How are you using drama therapy to address the opioid epidemic?

As the opioid epidemic is the nation’s largest public health issue, it makes treating the disease more challenging. First, the stigma has to be addressed, which we are doing through our play Four Legs to Stand
On, which explores stigma around substance abuse and the importance of familial support. The characters and plot line help to connect audiences to the experience, create empathy, and educate them on what addiction looks like inside of a family. Each performance is followed by a talkback where audiences ask questions, tell their own stories, and are connected to local resources as needed. When working with teens or parents, we focus post-performance conversations on prevention strategies and substance use signs and symptoms. When working with medical professionals, we address family behaviors and roles, and strategize best practices in offering treatment options.

How did your time at Steinhardt help you in achieving success with COAAST?

Steinhardt was the birthplace of this venture! I had three wonderful mentors– Maria Hodermarska, Nisha Sajnani and Robert Landy, who encouraged this work and supported my master’s thesis research on the topic. I won the Steinhardt Research Challenge Grant, which subsidized the first tour of my play, and ultimately led to the second tour, and the decision to found the organization. Conclusively, I won the award for Best Oral Performance at Steinhardt’s Research Showcase. This award not only provided more funding, but also validated my research and the use of drama therapy to eradicate the opioid epidemic. I’m forever grateful to Steinhardt for helping me find and support my life’s work.