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A community-based approach to the opioid crisis

Local forum looks at providing help, reducing stigma as keys to recovery

BELLOWS FALLS—Greater Falls Connections, northeast Windham County’s substance-abuse prevention organization, recently held a community forum called “Bringing Hope Home.”

This meeting, which focused on “the immediate response to opioid addiction, stories of recovery, and examples of restorative justice,” was one in a series the group has presented in the past few years, according to the news release.

Held at the Rockingham Free Public Library, the event brought in approximately 50 attendees.

Representatives from Greater Falls Connections were joined by staff members from Health Care Rehabilitation Services and the Turning Point Recovery Center in Springfield. They offered information on some of the available programs and services for people struggling with opioid addiction and their loved ones, and they also noted what needs are currently unmet for this population.

Most of the presenters had attended the National Rx & Heroin Abuse Summit held in Atlanta in April, and throughout the meeting, they shared some of what they learned.

Some main themes emerged.

Addiction is a neurological illness with a strong social component, and much is still not understood about it.

Stigma and discrimination against people suffering from opioid addiction causes harm to those individuals, the people who love them, and the entire community.

And, people are dying.

The evening began with introductions from Greater Falls Connections’s Executive Director Laura Schairbaum, and Deb Witkus, the organization’s outreach coordinator.

Commitment and compassion

Witkus set the evening’s goal. “The hope [...] is that we leave here with more commitment and compassion,” she said, and added, “we believe that the opposite of addiction” is compassion, and community.

“There was another life lost, a young life, this past weekend,” Witkus noted, then asked the attendees to take a minute of silence to “honor that life and that loss.”

Scott Sharland, Greater Falls Connections’s program specialist, led attendees in an exercise to identify “what your hope for the community is.” He asked for people to “shout out ideas” while he wrote them down on large pieces of paper tacked up in the front of the room.

Many of the requests were for tangible, community-building projects and activities: hiking trails, a skatepark, a community garden, mentorship programs.

Some addressed basic needs and rights: jobs for people recently released from incarceration, restorative justice in schools and businesses, early education in “coping skills,” and housing.

Others directly spoke to substance abuse: a “sober house,” karaoke and other activities “but not at a bar,” a Turning Point center in Bellows Falls, and “more voices in recovery."

“I don’t see anything here we can’t do,” Sharland said, “so let’s do them one at a time.”

Kate Lamphere, director of adult services at HCRS, said that after attending the Atlanta conference, “I realized I needed to do more.”

For her, that meant sharing stories of how opioids affected her personally. She told a story about her uncle, who died in jail because he was experiencing withdrawal from opiates and his pleas for medical attention were ignored by guards.

Lamphere said her younger brother, who also struggles with addiction, was saved by Narcan, and he is now in recovery.

Carrying Narcan

The organizers screened a speech from the Atlanta conference given by Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. In it, he issued his office’s first national public health advisory in 13 years. The subject: naloxone, commonly known by its brand name, Narcan.

Adams wants more Americans to carry Narcan with them and learn how to use it.

“You don’t have to be a policeman or a firefighter or a paramedic to save a life,” said Adams. “We lose a person every 12-and-a-half minutes” to overdose.

Adams mentioned a man who overdosed, was revived by Narcan, has been clean for six years, and is now a recovery coach. “If that’s enabling, then call me an enabler. Let’s hashtag ‘enable recovery,’” Adams said.

After viewing Adams’s speech, the presenters answered the audience’s questions about Narcan.

In summary, it’s legal for anyone to carry Narcan in their car or purse, and if it’s administered accidentally to someone not overdosing on opioids, it won’t hurt that person or cause them to become addicted.

Turning Point Springfield’s Executive Director Michael Johnson gave additional tips for Narcan.

“It’s important, after you revive someone, that you call for [medical] help immediately.” This is especially crucial if the person who overdosed has fentanyl in their bodies, because one or two doses of Narcan may not fully revive them.

One audience member asked the team how to tell if Narcan is working.

“They’ll start breathing,” said Lindsy Mack, of the HCRS and Springfield Medical Care Systems Community Health Team.

Workforce development

Mack led a discussion on workforce development for people in recovery. One solution, she said, is to bring them back into the recovery system, but as coaches in centers and assistants in emergency rooms.

For the latter, the assistants would visit people sent home from the ER after an overdose to offer them peer support and resources to continue their recovery.

Currently, said Mack, people who overdose and survive are sent home from the hospital “with a list of phone numbers for them to seek recovery on their own,” and it’s not working.

“Creating jobs isn’t that difficult,” for this population, said Mack, who added, “they’re experts because they’ve been through the recovery process themselves.”

Lamphere and Johnson talked about the need for more transitional support for people in recovery. Turning Point in Springfield has a transition house, Johnson said, and every person there has their own peer-support recovery coach, and they set “one goal at a time.” Before the residents leave, said Johnson, “they have a foundation for recovery.”

Other services at the house include a garden, which is tended by and feeds the residents, as well as community meals and parenting classes.

Support for parents is crucial, noted Lamphere, because many parents, especially mothers, in or seeking recovery are at great risk for losing their children through the Department of Children and Families. She noted HCRS is working with Turning Point in Springfield to develop a program and secure funding to “line up the supports a person needs to get their children back."

“We need to make it safe for women to seek help without losing their children,” she said.

Witkus pointed out that according to her experience, “people who grew up in DCF custody are having their kids taken away.”

Because “we have no trauma-informed approach, it affects two generations” when children are removed from the household, she said, and added, “restorative justice is needed” for this issue.

Remembering children

Steve Geller, executive director of Southeastern Vermont Community Action, cautioned against failing to think about children’s safety when they are living in a home where the adults have addiction challenges.

“You have to know when the time is right” to remove a child from the home, he said.

“We always have to balance for child safety,” said Lamphere, “but we can do better.” One way, she said, is by arranging interventions to keep children safe and keep families together.

Witkus called for more humanization of people with addictions, and an end to viewing parenthood through the lens of the “good parent/bad parent” binary.

“We need more training so people understand that addiction is a neurological issue, said Witkus, and one “that’s often caused by trauma."

In a follow-up email with The Commons, Schairbaum mentioned resources for people living in or near Bellows Falls. A new group, Community Action Recovery and Resources, meets on Wednesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Parks Place, at 44 School Street in Bellows Falls. They “provide a forum for dialog and sharing of information between the community and people recovering from addiction,” Schairbaum said.

Starting June 11, another group, Family, Addiction, and Recovery will meet weekly at Parks Place on Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m. The group “is a confidential, open meeting for family members and people struggling with addiction to find support and talk about issues surrounding addiction,” Schairbaum said.

For those interested in Narcan, “the easiest way,” said Schairbaum, “is to go to the local Turning Point Recovery Centers, which are available to give the brief trainings to anyone who walks in.”

Turning Point centers are located at 39 Elm St., in Brattleboro, or 7 Morgan St., Springfield.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #462 (Wednesday, June 6, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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