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It takes a village

At Retreat, Congressman Peter Welch discusses solutions to opioid epidemic with community leaders

BRATTLEBORO—“You guys, rightfully, can be pounding the table to be getting some resources,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “This budget situation in Washington is a disgrace. We know it. So, I don’t want anybody, ever, apologizing for saying they need some resources. It’s absolutely outrageous what’s going on.”

At the Brattleboro Retreat on Feb. 20, Welch met with an interdisciplinary community team — leaders from law enforcement, mental health workers, the school system, local employers, and those with lived experience — for a roundtable discussion about the opioid epidemic and its reach into Brattleboro.

Key questions and considerations for the group were the ways in which that epidemic is being addressed, how to continue progress, and what techniques are already providing some relief.

The scope of funding

The resounding plea among the group was for more money and more resources to fund the myriad task forces attending to four crucial areas: prevention, treatment, recovery, and enforcement.

With federal funding, many other states around the country have imitated the system that Vermont has set up over the past five years — the Hub and Spoke system — to address the opioid crisis.

“These grants are needed, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” said Kurt White, director of Ambulatory Services at the Retreat, referring to the substance-abuse block grants.

These are grants that come from the federal government, but are distributed to the states, and then to various purposes and projects — from treatment to prevention to recovery supports.

They serve to fund treatment for uninsured individuals, and also projects that address high-needs populations, like women with addiction, IV substance-using populations, and homeless individuals.

However, there have been questions from some in recent years about the usefulness of the grants, as the number of uninsured people has decreased. However, White sees these as invaluable resources to continue to treat individuals and fund recovery projects.

White also mentioned the effectiveness of 21st Century Cures Act federal funding that has been used by many states to address the opioid crisis.

Peer-to-peer help

Peer recovery centers have also benefited the community. Suzanne Walker, director of Turning Point of Windham County, explained that relationships among those who have shared experiences of suffering with addiction facilitate growth.

“Somebody who has lived experience and who has hope can help another person, and we can help draw them back into the community, because they have felt so alone and so ostracized,” Walker said. “We get to just be present for others until they can feel stronger to connect with others. We can help them get access to all the services in town.”

She added that much of the focus in these centers for individuals on a daily basis is “simply learning how to feel comfortable in their own skin.”

Living in one’s own skin is a real challenge for many users; addiction is a disease that spurs feelings of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and is thoroughly stigmatized.

Jedediah Popp, a recovering heroin addict and current case worker at HCRS, said, “I don’t think there’s an organization [at the roundtable] that I haven’t used.”

He described a period of intense suffering which led him to attempt suicide one night.

“Turning Point offered me that place where I could go to not feel judged,” Popp said. He discussed the need to transform guilt and shame into a sense of purpose: “Speaking, having openness about my own story, and attending meetings give me hope,” he said. “I’m filled with gratitude for this community.”

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald described the success he sees in the new, non-traditional tactics of officers to address the problem, by paying attention to individuals’ quality-of-life issues and “[getting] to know these people on a human level.”

The theme in the room was human connection; while a source of vitality for everyone, it was seen as a particularly restorative resource for addicts among members at the table.

While some efforts are successful, needs still remain. One need in particular is a less-tangible resource, one that is perhaps more complicated than money.

“We [need] to have a capacity to accept the frailty of the human condition... We need to have the capacity for empathy,” Welch said.

Such empathy was clearly visible at the roundtable among the community leaders, who continued discussion after the 90-minute roundtable event adjourned.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #448 (Wednesday, February 28, 2018).

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