Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN.

By V.S. Santoni


In February of 2018 the Tennessee legislature made syringe exchange programs legal. Street Works, a Nashville-based HIV-outreach-centered nonprofit founded in 1997, soon after became Tennessee’s first state-sanctioned syringe service. The years following have seen an exponential increase in opioid and stimulant overdose. According to Lisa Bell, head of Meharry’s MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) clinic the figures have risen 575 percent in the Bla. Bell points to many factors leading to the lack of drug treatment among Black Nashvillians, among them racial economic and social disparities, social stigma, and the notion addiction is an ethical issue as opposed to a public health one. Meharry’s MAT clinic aims to collaborate with community leaders, especially ministers, to reduce inaccurate stereotypes around not only syringe programs but drug treatment in general, in hopes to curb the dramatic death toll.

Meharry’s MAT clinic gathered members of its CAB (Community Advisory Board)
Tuesday, May 9 to discuss how their program should address bulwarks in drug treatment for Black Nashvillians. Among the speakers were Joyce Perkins, who has been working with drug addiction treatment and HIV prevention for Meharry’s Department of Family and Community Medicine since she graduated from TSU in 1979; Dr. Cynthia Jackson, director of behavioral health services for Matthew Walker’s three clinics and also head of their state-funded MAT program; and Thomas Gooch, formerly of Street Works but now working as a consultant to Meharry’s CAB.

Perkins stressed the importance of growing their organization by adding people recovering from drug addiction. She believes the lived experiences of former users bring nuances that will better inform the CAB’s ideas and actions.

Central to the CAB’s mission is education and outreach. Bell stressed the importance of
connecting with faith-based initiatives, and she discussed the possibility of a podcast and a
public show on NPT to raise awareness of the services the MAT clinic and Meharry’s other
projects offer people struggling with addiction. Not limited to syringe exchanges, the MAT clinic also offers connections to educational opportunities through Black churches to address stigma.

She insists the messaging in the Black community around drug addiction and treatment must change if this escalating death toll is to be managed.

The Meharry MAT clinic is located at 1810 Albion St. in Nashville. If you or someone
you know is suffering from addiction and would like access to more resources, you can reach the Meharry MAT clinic at 615-327-5875. You can also find them on Facebook at

Correction: Joyce Perkins graduated from TSU in 1980. She specializes in the fields of
mental health, addiction and HIV/AIDS treatment and is currently employed as a
consultant for the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Meharry Medical
College. Perkins has been working with patients with HIV/AIDS since 1984, not 1980.
Perkins also said that “perhaps having people who are using Syringe Exchange Programs
with medication, and/or treatment for their addiction, and/or who enroll in treatment with
supportive services such as one-on-one counseling, group therapy, etc. for drug addiction
would add a realistic continuum of how treatment and interventions would assist the
people we are serving . . . It is not that we are saying, ‘Here are syringes…Come to treatment.’ There are people who we serve who do not want any of the above services and
hopefully some of the target population will engage. People are being poisoned, and dying,
not just overdosing.”