Heroin, opioids now top alcohol as No. 1 substance treatment at Brien Center

Drugs are prepared to shoot intravenously by a user from Vermont addicted to heroin in this file photo from Getty Images. The Brien Center, the largest substance abuse treatment center in Berkshire County, now reports that it treats more heroin and opioid addicts than it does for alcohol.

PITTSFIELD -- Highlighting the new addictive scourge in Berkshire County, heroin and associated opioids have surpassed alcohol to become the No. 1 substance abuse treatment sought at the Brien Center.

According to statistics provided by the substance abuse treatment center, 46 percent of the facility's patients have been treated for heroin and/or opioid abuse so far this year. Alcohol abuse is now second, at 43 percent.

Last year, for example, the statistics were dramatically different: 57 percent of patients were there for alcohol abuse, compared to 23 percent for heroin and opioid treatment.

"It is an epidemic, there is no doubt about it," said Jennifer Michaels, medical director at the Brien Center and the attending psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center.

Michaels said that in her 19 years at Brien, alcohol abuse treatment had been its most prevalent concern until this year. The Brien Center is Berkshire County's largest substance abuse treatment facility.

Nationally, she said, heroin/opioid abuse has been declared a public health crisis. In March, Gov. Deval Patrick declared it a statewide crisis and dedicated an additional $20 million for treatment services.

Locally, it's just as bad, said Michaels.

"In my years here, I've never seen these kinds of numbers," Michael said.

According to Department of Health statistics, Berkshire County had 16 heroin overdose deaths in 2013. While county statistics for 2014 are not available, Massachusetts State Police reported 140 overdose deaths between November 2013 and March of this year. The state police data only includes instances within its jurisdiction and does not include the state's three largest cities, Boston, Worcester and Springfield, however.

Ananda Timpane, executive director of the Railroad Street Youth Project, a nationally known youth empowerment facility in Great Barrington, called heroin and opioid abuse "a major problem, not just in South County, but throughout the Berkshires."

Railroad Street has been battling heroin addiction in South County since its formation 20 years ago, but that problem has been growing in recent years, Timpane said.

Michaels said the stigma of drug use most likely indicates the problem is worse than the available statistics portray.

"It's like breast cancer 40 years ago," she said. "And cancer itself before that. But that's not really a comparison. According to the World Health Organization, drug abuse is the most stigmatized disease in the world, not just in America."

But while it's an epidemic, in Michaels' words, the county is fighting back. Despite limited resources, Berkshire County is better off than many parts of the country, say several experts.

At the Brien Center, for example, "there is no waiting list," said Michaels. "You can call us at any time of the day and get an appointment within a week. And if it's an emergency, we'll see you that day."

Nationally, according to a 2008 study by the National Institute of Health, the average waiting time for drug treatment, from assessment to admitting, is about 65 days.

"I think that, given what we have in terms of resources, that we've done a very good job in the county," said Lois Daunis, the prevention coordinator for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. "We have very good communication between all the treatment agencies in Berkshire County."

The Brien Center treats about 1,500 patients annually through a variety of heroin/opioid treatment programs. Berkshire Medical Center has the McGee Center and the Berkshire County Sheriff's Department also run programs.

The County Sheriff's Department is planning to enroll drug users in what is called the Vivitrol program. Heroin-addicted inmates who are about to be released get an injection of the drug before they leave jail. The opioid suppressant, which has been around since 2005, is generally effective for 30 days. This gives the former inmates a window in which to seek treatment, said Michaels.

"We'll try to take them [into treatment] immediately," she said.

"It's been in use in the eastern part of the state," said Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler. "We're actually meeting with some reps from the company in a week or so to iron out the details."

The idea, said Bowler, is to give former inmates a window in which to enable them to focus on their life outside of jail, instead of focusing on how to get more drugs.

"I think the Sheriff's Department deserves credit for stepping up in this area," said Daunis.

According to a 2007 report in the Journal of Drug Issues, former drug offenders were twice as likely to have their probation revoked when they aren't enrolled in a drug treatment program and 60 percent more likely to be re-arrested.

According to Michaels, there is really no longer a "typical" profile for a heroin/opioid user in Berkshire County. They skew toward younger adults, but not exclusively.

"We see the tip of the iceberg being seniors in high school," said Timpane. "But it expands considerably after that."

She told of a grandmother who became addicted to opioids while being treated for arthritis a few years ago.

"She told me she would never use opioids again," said Timpane. "The withdrawal was just so physically devastating."

And a significant proportion of these users are professionals, spouses and parents.

"Jim," for example, fell into addiction after he injured his back at work. Jim has requested his name and personal information be changed, because he's uncomfortable being labeled as a drug addict.

He began taking Oxycodone for the pain. But as he built up a tolerance, he required more of the drug, much more. His prescription was limited, so he began to seek other sources, including heroin. Unlike Oxycodone, it was easier to obtain. It was cheaper. And it worked pretty well.

"You could not imagine the pain I had," he said. "I used to sit in the men's room at work and weep. I wanted to die. I never, ever felt that way. No sports injury I ever had could touch this. After a while, there was nothing I wouldn't take to get rid of it."

Jim endured the addiction and the pain for a year before seeking treatment out-of-state.

"I'm not a junkie," he said, emotionally. "I'm not a bum. I have a life. That's the big misconception. It isn't just kids anymore."

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