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Where are they now? Lucy Burns

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19 August 2014
Lucy Burns

Associate Professor Lucy Burns, of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, is finding new clinical interventions for people who are seriously unwell as a result of alcohol or drug addiction.

From her earliest employment as a student nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney through to her subsequent academic career in psychology and public health, NDARC’s Associate Professor Lucy Burns (PhD, 2004) has maintained a strong interest in clinical interventions for people who are seriously unwell as a result of alcohol or drug addiction.

Today her expertise in data linkage has her overseeing large projects which investigate outcomes for chronic drug use among populations ranging from pregnant women to prisoner cohorts.  She also has a research portfolio investigating outcomes for marginalised and disenfranchised populations including older homeless men and women and young people on the streets.

The data linkage projects, which have involved investigating outcomes for hundreds of thousands of drug users in and out of treatment, allow the research teams to answer questions such as the impact of methadone treatment on morbidity and mortality on prison populations, or on the impact of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy on women and children.

At the other end of the scale, Associate Professor Burns works with much smaller cohorts investigating and evaluating interventions with homeless men women and youth who are also chronic drug users. She was a chief investigator on Mission Australia’s Michael Project and its follow-on project, the Misha Project. The projects, funded by a philanthropic donor, involved evaluating the impact of providing housing to homeless men and providing access to a number of wrap-around supports including dental and mental health services.

“The way we view drug and alcohol use is that it is not just a stand-alone issue and it generally comes together with a whole bunch of other factors such as disadvantage and mental health problems,” Associate Professor Burns said.

“The theory is that if a person needs a house they should be able to have a house and then services will wrap around that. It takes drug and alcohol research out of the realm of an individual problem – and the idea that if we give people a pill or a particular type of psychological intervention that will automatically improve their health.”

Along with PhD student Elizabeth Whittaker, Associate Professor Burns is currently leading the evaluation of four different programs investigating the impact of a range of housing interventions on substance use and mental health. The Inner City Youth at Risk project is providing integrated service responses to homeless youth in the Kings Cross Area; the Way2Home project is evaluating the impact of case management and health support for chronic rough sleepers; Common Ground and Platform 70 are two other integrated housing and wrap around service projects.

Her future research directions include investigating drug and alcohol use among older Australians, for which she is a current UNSW Goldstar recipient, and eventually doing more work in rural Australia. “I would like to look at the changing economics of rural Australia and what impact that has on drug and alcohol use across the rural population.”

As well as her individual research portfolio, Associate Professor Burns manages the Drug Trends research teams at NDARC, which includes the long running annual Illicit Drugs Reporting System (IDRS) and the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS). The projects monitor emerging trends in price, purity and availability through interviews with sentinel group of drug users, highlighting emerging issues which require timely policy responses. More recently the projects have begun monitoring online marketplaces and new psychoactive substances.

Whether she is managing huge data sets or working with small groups of seriously disadvantaged drug users, Associate Professor Burns is guided by an overarching principle informed by her early years on the clinical frontline.

“We are trying to never forget that the people we are dealing with are really sick. We continually remind ourselves that this is not a choice they make but it is a health problem they develop over time, for many of them beginning at the point of conception.”