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West Coast Poverty Center

Faculty Affiliate Profile: Seema Clifasefi

by WCPC seminar student Gabby Sievers, MPH candidate

WCPC faculty affiliate Seema L. Clifasefi, PhD, is currently an associate professor and codirector of the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington-Harborview Medical Center. Clifasefi’s work lies at the intersection of substance use, mental health, criminal justice and housing policy, focusing on populations with lived experience of homelessness, substance use and/orinvolvement in the criminal justice system. Clifasefi is a longtime member of the UW community and looks forward to continued involvement with the University of Washington School of Social Work.

How did you come to study your topic?

After completing a doctorate in Psychology from Victoria University of Wellington, I returned to the University of Washington as a Postdoctoral Fellow and worked with Dr. Alan Marlatt, a pioneer in addiction research and harm reduction. The work that was taking place at the Addictive Behavioral Research Center under Dr. Marlatt’s leadership informed my future research interests around working directly with people experiencing homelessness and substance use problems.

What drew you to the University of Washington?

I first attended the University of Washington as an undergraduate Psychology major. During this time, I was exposed to amazing faculty and leadership that allowed me to contribute to research that I felt was meaningful and applicable to the real world. I returned to the University postdoctorate because I was interested in being part of an institution that highly values making a positive impact through research.

What are you working on now?

Currently I am working to develop, evaluate and disseminate programs and interventions that aim to reduce substance related harm and improve quality of life.

What do you plan to do over the next few years?

I plan to continue collaborating with my academic and community colleagues to develop harm reduction-oriented alternative pathways to improve quality of life for people struggling with substance use that can be implemented in the real world. We are also working to secure grants for a number of projects, including the dissemination and implementation of a collaborative, academic/community-oriented program designed for and with residents living in permanent, supportive housing (i.e., housing first programs).

What advice do you have for students interested in your topic?

Open-mindedness and cultural humility. I believe that we need to approach individuals who use substances with compassion and with a non-judgemental approach. A harm reduction philosophy - meeting people where they are - drives my way of being, not just at work, but for all components of my life. I find that when I am open and willing to listen, people in turn are more open and willing to share. There is a lot of wisdom that is exchanged in that process. It is important to recognize the larger context of peoples' life experiences in order to support them in their autonomy and path to self determination.

What courses will you be teaching?

I don’t have a course on the agenda right now, but I would love to teach a series on Harm Reduction in the School of Social Work. In the future, a multidisciplinary Harm Reduction series engaging the School of Medicine, the School of Public Health and the School of Social work would be the dream.