Lived experience leads to unique educational approach

Dec. 5, 2023

Bridget Murphy's struggles as a teen fuel her work to educate the next generation of health professionals on how to address substance use disorders.

Bridget Murphy at her desk with computer monitors and books.

Bridget S. Murphy, DBH, MEd, spent part of high school in treatment for substance abuse and shares her personal story with students as part of the undergraduate course “HPS 306, Drugs and Society.”

Bridget S. Murphy, DBH, MEd, was 12 when she started stealing cigarettes and swigs of liquor. Next, she moved to marijuana and speed. At 15, Murphy landed in rehab.

It’s not exactly the kind of personal information students expect to hear from a professor on the first day of class or read in a university biography. It wasn’t easy to put out such personal details for anyone to see, Murphy says, but it needed to be done.

“I really started making some intentional decisions about being honest about who I am and recognizing all the beauty in that, as well as the healing, and how I can use my experiences for good,” said Murphy, director of education and workforce research for the University of Arizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction. “Hopefully, I provide hope to people that these things can happen, and they don’t define you — you can still make great contributions to the world or to science or to academics or to your community.”

Sharing a personal case study

An only child, Murphy moved across the country from a small Michigan town to northwest Tucson when she was 12. Under normal circumstances, middle school can be rough. For a depressed new kid trying to fit in, it was excruciating. Making matters worse, her mother and stepfather were headed toward divorce.

Bridget Murphy poses for a picture outside the Health Sciences Innovation Building.

Murphy hopes her educational and research pursuits help heal others who have dealt with substance use disorders in their lives or with family or friends.

Murphy tried to find her niche playing volleyball and soccer. Instead, she slid in with the risk-takers. The cigarettes and alcohol led to marijuana and speed. She and her friends experimented with psychedelics and cocaine, sometimes using drugs before student council meetings.

Her mom, who worked at a rehabilitation and treatment center, caught her drunk and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. Then, she ran away from home.

The director of the facility where her mother worked offered to enroll Murphy. Far from a willing participant, she repeatedly begged to go home. When that didn’t work, she took matters into her own hands.

During a regular morning run five months into her 18-month stay, Murphy and another teen took off into the desert. It was a warm May morning when they wandered for nearly an hour before stumbling upon a convenience store. Partying with her old buddies was a payphone call away, and Murphy scored five days of freedom before she got caught. Her capture, though, paved the path to recovery.

“When we talk about the cycle of addiction or substance use disorders, this is part of the process,” she said. “And in fact, that probably made it better for me in terms of my growth. I almost needed to have that experience to really see that change was necessary and possible.”

Climbing out of the darkness

Slowly but surely, Murphy bought into the program. She credits her stint in treatment for turning around her academic career – the once lackluster student earned her GED and excelled in college and graduate school. It also gave her the tools she needed when, as an adult with a thriving professional career, she fell into old habits misusing alcohol with her then-husband.

“It was a dual life and totally incongruent with what my daily work life was or values that I communicated to others,” she said. “This incongruence was really eating at me.”

The marriage ended and the unfiltered honesty began.

“I think the bravest thing that I've done, and the thing that I'm most proud of, is healing myself and working toward that with the relationships that I have,” she said.

“I want to create spaces for people to be who they are."
—Bridget S. Murphy, DBH, MEd

That means being open about the past.

“There’s so much stigma that exists and that’s another reason why I do put it out there, to help address that stigma,” she said. “It’s been such a hidden, secretive, shameful condition and it doesn’t have to be.”

Finding her purpose in teaching

More than five people a day die from opioid overdoses in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Nationally, drug overdose deaths are at an all-time high. More than 104,000 Americans died due to drug overdose in the 12-month period ending in September 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bridget Murphy visits with students at a table in a large classroom.

Murphy says being kind and providing support and safe spaces for others is her main goal.

Murphy, an assistant research professor of health promotion sciences at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and the Arizona Center for Rural Health, has worked to find solutions to the addiction and opioid epidemic in various private and nonprofit organizations, but she loves academia the most.

When Murphy, began teaching the undergraduate course “HPS 306, Drugs and Society” four years ago, it was already a well-established general education health course. Murphy tweaked the curriculum, changing the text, assignments and objectives to focus on substance use disorder as a public health concern. She wanted to address the stigma as well as the full continuum of care – prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery.

“Ultimately, the goal is to provide students with a learning experience that examines the public health relevance of substance use, misuse and addiction using science, research, interactive assignments and lived experience,” said Murphy, who is the faculty lead for addiction and substance use certificate and minor programs developed in the Zuckerman College of Public Health with the support of the Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction. “My personal teaching goal is that at least one student each semester will be inspired to learn more and pursue a career in substance use prevention, harm reduction, treatment or recovery.”

Todd Vanderah, PhD, founding director of the Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction, praised Murphy’s positive attitude and how she strives to help others.

“Bridget is a colleague who works hard and thoughtfully by connecting with other faculty, staff and students,” said Vanderah, Regents Professor and head of the Department of Pharmacology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson. “Her lived experience brings tremendous insight to our needs for the center while bringing perspective to issues that we may not have considered.”

Bridget Murphy works with a student in her classroom.

“HPS 306, Drugs and Society” was already a well-established general education health course when Bridget S. Murphy, DBH, MEd, took it over four years ago, but her approach focuses on substance use disorder as a public health concern.

Murphy publishes a blog, Substance U in Public Health, as a way for students to keep up on the latest information and stay connected when the class ends.

A self-described shy introvert, Murphy willingly shares her story with students to tackle the stigma of substance abuse disorder head-on. In response, students regularly tell her about their personal experiences or those of family or friends.

“I feel very honored that they feel safe enough to share with me, that my experience has the potential to help other people, and that the topics we’re talking about are planting seeds of healing and hope,” she said.

Her thoughtful approach resonates with her students; this past spring, they nominated her for the W.A. Franke Honors College’s Margaret M. Briehl and Dennis T. Ray Five Star Faculty Award that recognizes excellence in teaching and mentoring.

Murphy is proud of her work, but it is not her main goal in life.

“I think what I want to be known for is being kind,” she said. “I want to create spaces for people to be who they are, wherever they are, in whatever format they want to be in, and to be kind and supportive of others as well as being kind to myself.”


Bridget S. Murphy, DBH, M.Ed.
Education and Workforce Development Director, UArizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction
Assistant Research Professor, Zuckerman College of Public Health and Arizona Center for Rural Health 

Todd Vanderah, PhD
Director, Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction
Regents Professor and Head, Department of Pharmacology, College of Medicine – Tucson
Co-Director, MD/PhD Dual Degree Program
Assistant Vice President, Research and Innovation, Global MD Program
Professor, Department of Anesthesiology, College of Medicine – Tucson
Professor, Department of Neurology, College of Medicine – Tucson
Member, BIO5 Institute
Member, Cancer Biology Program, UArizona Cancer Center


Stacy Pigott
UArizona Health Sciences