All hands needed in opioid fight, forum audience told
WATCH THE VIDEO | The Opioid Crisis: A Community Dialogue (Hosted by Carrie Saldo)
SPRINGFIELD — Even amid advances, much work remains to halt a public health crisis ravaging Massachusetts and the nation.
The opioid crisis shows no sign of slowing. That's the bad news that viewers of a live public television forum absorbed Thursday night.
But they also heard testimony from people determined to turn the tide on overdose deaths, pushing back at stigma, misunderstanding and fear.
"I believe it is the single most important issue that we face" in public health, said Dr. Robert Roose, an expert on addiction and recovery with Providence Health Systems. Roose serves on Gov. Charlie Baker's Opioid Addiction Work Group.
A vital step, he said, is pushing against stigma so that people respond to any evidence that a family member's life may be in danger.
"This really is an effort that needs all stakeholders to send a similar message," Roose said.
That message? That recovery from opioid addiction can be achieved.
Eagle reporter Carrie Saldo moderated a one-hour broadcast on WGBY-TV, Channel 57 that drew on emotional personal accounts, comments from doctors and health-care workers in the trenches and questions posted on Twitter.
The forum, co-sponsored by the station, the Center for Human Development and The Berkshire Eagle, came after more than 1,400 state residents died last year of accidental opioid overdoses. These deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities.
Though speakers indicated that social stigma may be easing, in the face of reality, even avid work by task forces, medical communities and social groups is running up against problems that include:
• A lack of treatment options and beds for those seeking recovery.
• Continued disagreement over the use of medical therapies to combat addiction.
• Fitful support for "harm reduction" efforts to safeguard addicts not yet ready to confront their disease.
In addition to a packed in-house audience at the Springfield PBS affiliate, the forum presented the views of six panelists.
After showing field footage of people describing consequences of opioid abuse, Saldo put the question to the one panel member with lived experience, Danyel Zerella, a resident of the Grace House program in Northampton overseen by the Center for Human Development, who said she has been substance-free for 11 months.
"To me, it's like suffering, loss and pain," she said of narcotics. "It's hard for everyone who has a situation with it."
Zerella said she fought to overcome her disease — and heroin use — for a little boy named Travis. "It was the threat of my son not being able to come back into my life," she said. "There comes a point where you have to start doing it for yourself. I don't have to use drugs or alcohol to find happiness anymore."
Zerella called on the state Department of Public Health to provide more treatment options for the thousands caught up in opioid addiction.
Before the forum went live, former state Sen. Michael Knapik, who now leads the governor's Western Massachusetts office said stories like Zerella's have touched everyone in public service. "We know we have a lot of work to do. We're going to have an impact, town by town and city by city," Knapik said.
Liz Whynott, the needle exchange program director for Tapestry, said it is important to offer ways for addicts to beat their disease while reducing health risks along the way.
"It's really hard to get off of opioids in general," she said. It is important for programs like hers to catch people "when they are able to respond.
Roose, the Providence Health Systems doctor, said addiction is now the leading cause of preventable death.
Saldo asked studio audience members to raise their hands if they view addiction as a disease — and virtually all did.
Roose underlined that, calling it a disease of the brain that impairs one's sense of control and brings bad consequences. While he said old views that addiction is willful, or a personal moral failure, are dimming.
Whynott, of Tapestry, praised that trend, saying that to make a difference, and save addicts' lives, "We really try to meet people where they're at."
Though addicts may not be ready for treatment, they are the ones most at risk, and deserving of thoughtful care, which in her view includes needle exchanges.
"Active drug users are the ones that are dying from overdoses right now," she said. "It really just boils down to care with compassion. We try to look at everybody as an individual."
Audience member Annie Parkinson of Holden, of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, reacted to one observation about alarm some people feel when they see people lined up to receive methadone treatments.
"You need to be afraid of the people who are not in the line. You need to teach your children about compassion, and love and kindness."
From the audience, Illana Steinhauer of Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington rose to say that her group is working to help people with chronic pain, trying to steer them around opioid use through acupuncture, massage therapy, and improved nutrition, among other approaches.
"We try to figure out what these people need to manage their pain, and get them into these programs," she said. "Rather than using opioids to treat their pain."
Panelist Jennifer Kimball, project coordinator for the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, described the many steps her team is taking, aided by a grant from the state DPH.
The work includes prevention and harm reduction, steps to ensure safe storage and safe disposal of opioid medications and safer prescribing practices by doctors.
The collaborative helps doctors to provide more information to patients who are receiving medications.
"It's about taking those necessary steps to have a dialogue," Kimball said. "We also are lucky to work on overdose prevention as well and need to talk about that more."
Dr. Peter Friedmann of Baystate Health, who serves on the governor's task force, said that while pleased to see growing acceptance that addiction is a disease, flagged ongoing disagreement over the advisability of medical therapies.
"There are diseases and then there are diseases," Friedmann said. "There are still many people that stigmatize this treatment."
Back of ambulance
One of the night's most moving testimonies came from an audience member, Emilia St. Peter, who works as an EMT for National Ambulance in Springfield.
She described horrors and pain she sees in her ambulance and noted that she lost her biological mother to overdose. She said the disease remains profoundly stigmatized.
"It needs to be talked about. But it's not. Words are just words. I see a lot of that in the back of my ambulance. I don't think it's spoken about enough. It's still a taboo.
"Everyone's human," she added. "And I think as a community we sometimes forget that."
Other panelists included Anthony Gulluni, the Hampden County district attorney, and Chantal Silloway, adolescent recovery program director for the Goodwin House in Northampton.
For links to information on recovery resources, visit www.wgby.org/resources.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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