The Opiod Addiction Epidemic in Our Communities
Part 2 of 2
Editor's note: Part 1 of this two-part series on how opioid use is growing in our local communities talks about who's using, how easy it is to become addicted and how law enforcement has increasingly come to understand and handle addiction as a public-health crisis. Part 2 focuses on solutions — where and how to get help for yourself or a loved one, as well as how to help kids steer clear of addiction in the first place.
Christopher Marshall was a “normal kid with a decent family” growing up in Northeast Philly. He loved computers, science and taking things apart to see how they worked. At 23, Marshall hurt his back while working as a mechanic, and his well-meaning grandmother gave him some of her leftover Percocet, an opioid pain medication.
“I took one of these pills, and the pain cleared right up,” he recalls. A short time later he hurt his back worse, so he took two pills. “I felt a buzz and thought, ‘I like this.’ At that moment something clicked in my brain, and I thought this was how I was supposed to feel my whole life.”
Despite brief stints of success at methadone clinics, Marshall continued a downward spiral, shoplifting to get money to support his drug habit. He was finally jailed for identity theft for a year in 2012, the push he needed to get clean.
He discovered The Last Stop, a recovery house in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia that offered him a place to stay and provided the support he needed to stay sober. He’s still there, though now Marshall serves as The Last Stop’s director. “I’m doing whatever I can to help another addict,” he says.
Get help to get clean
Getting and staying clean is hard. “The first step is being motivated to make a change,” says Kate Cronan, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Nemours/Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. “That means telling your friends or family that you’re addicted and asking for help.”
Treatment for an opioid addiction generally starts with a program to teach behavioral changes and offer counseling. In some cases, clients receive medications such as methadone to help relieve common opiate withdrawal symptoms, which may include irritability, shakiness, anxiety and even seizures.
Block the path to addiction
“Kids as young as 14 are experimenting with prescription drugs, believing they're safe to take,” says Rita Landgraf, cabinet secretary for Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services. Landgraf believes education is vital.
Programs such as Right in My Backyard, a collaboration between Gregg Wolfe, a Cherry Hill, NJ father whose son Justin died from a heroine overdose, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern New Jersey hope to stem the tide of addiction through instruction. In partnership with Camden County’s Task Force, experts visit community groups to educate both teens and their parents on the opiate-use epidemic.
“We have breakout groups where someone in recovery and I meet with the teenagers so they can talk a bit more freely, while the police meet with parents, telling them signs to look for,” says Elana Dobrowolski, program director at Meridian Counseling Services in Cherry Hill, NJ.
Parents must keep the lines of communication open — discussing anxiety, peer issues and other stresses — and talk about their children’s friends who may be experimenting with drugs.
“Help kids figure out ways to handle those situations, including direct boundary setting or distraction,” says Dobrowolski. “Parents can encourage their children to be involved in positive activities, discuss rules, expectations and consequences around drug and alcohol use and consistently enforce consequences. It's also important to avoid contradictions between their own words and behaviors when it comes to drug and alcohol use.”
See page 2 for local programs that work to treat or prevent addiction.
Now that citizens and lawmakers recognize addiction as a disease, as opposed to a crime, states are adding resources to help stop the epidemic and rehabilitate those who are already addicted.
Some form of the 911 Good Samaritan Fatal Overdose Prevention Law exists in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. The new law allows anyone who believes a person is overdosing to contact police without fear of penalties for themselves. Emergency health professionals and police have started to carry Naxalone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. Because they recognize that family and friends closest to a person experiencing an overdose may need to take action, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey all have laws that protect laypeople who administer the drug.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in drug overdoses among men ages 12-25, according to the PA Department of Human Services. Last year, Governor Tom Wolf expanded Medicaid in Pennsylvania, which allowed nearly 650,000 Pennsylvanians to access health care coverage, including behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment. And research shows that when parents have access to health care coverage, their children are more likely to get coverage.
To encourage the destruction of unused opioid pills, nearly 450 take-back boxes have been deployed across 60 of the Commonwealth’s 67 counties, primarily at municipal police departments. These boxes provide a place where Pennsylvanians can safely dispose of unused or wanted medications. So far in 2016, nearly 25,000 pounds of prescription drugs have been collected and destroyed. In addition, programs from Life Skills Training have reduced drug, alcohol and tobacco use by 60% to 70% among 6th, 7th and 8th grade students.
New Jersey has partnered with seven other states to share records on the sale of prescriptions for controlled dangerous substances. These records go to doctors who prescribe such drugs. A new 50-bed residential treatment facility, Straight & Narrow, recently opened for male clients in the Drug Court program.
Governor Christie also signed into law a statewide, mandatory drug court program. He has been outspoken in his belief that no life is disposable and that it is a common sense, moral imperative to help individuals with drug addictions reclaim their lives with treatment, rather than warehousing them in prisons.
Delaware has added $4.45 million this fiscal year to create additional levels of care, including a second detox program and the creation of an assessment tool that can provide a medical evaluation within 23 hours to better understand what level of care a person may need.
“We want to keep people functioning, active in their community, and providing them the medical treatment support,” said Landgraf.“We used to say people have to lose everything and hit bottom before they get serious about their recovery. That’s false.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.