In Great Barrington, a cry for more substance abuse funding and treatment beds for South County

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Tucked into a tree-lined neighborhood off Main Street, there is a place to get help — but not enough people know about it.

Some want to change this. So in a push to get attention and money for more substance abuse and related treatment in South County, particularly in a residential setting, people are starting to meet and talk, as they did Monday at The Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services' Cottage Street location.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, hosted the gathering of local psychiatrists, addiction treatment specialists as well as police chiefs, town and school officials, among others.

"This is not just a Pittsfield issue," Pignatelli said. "This is a Berkshires issue. We want people to know that when they get lost they can go right down to Cottage Street."

Pignatelli said the problem in South County is the perception that affordable help for the slew of services offered by The Brien Center can only be had in Pittsfield, where its headquarters are, as well as the two Keenan Houses, publicly funded residential treatment homes — one for men and the other for women.

Shawn Mille, office manager of the Cottage Street location, said around 700 clients from the tri-state are using the center's outpatient services, everything from weekly therapy to medical care.

More is needed, particularly many more treatment beds, say local substance abuse specialists. That's because South Berkshire has not escaped the grip of a countywide, national opioid epidemic. And the area, though viewed as an upscale Mayberry flush with city money, has all the associated factors like poverty and untreated mental health disorders, as well as drug-related crime.

But Pignatelli said besides money, there are other obstacles to getting more residential treatment beds.

"If we could find a house, how do we get beyond `NIMBY?'" he said, conjuring the acronym for the typical not-in-my-backyard opposition.

There are other problems, said Christine Macbeth, the Brien Center's president and CEO, who noted that the organization has struggled to find board members, and that the still-pervasive stigma is keeping progress down.

"We need to talk more and to increase our presence [in South County]," she added. "We tried billboards. People don't like to talk about mental illness and addiction, though in reality it's impacted all of us."

Pignatelli agreed, and said it affects even "professionals," and even people who live in Lenox, for instance.

"We have to start chipping away at the stigma," he said. "Unless it's your son or daughter — people don't want to talk about it."

Robert McGraw, a deputy on the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office who serves on the Opiate Task Force, referred to an oft-referenced Smithsonian Magazine issue rating Great Barrington one of the top 10 towns in the U.S., one that has draped the municipality in a misleading cloak of innocence.

"[Great Barrington] has huge opioid addiction issues," he said of a town where heroin can be purchased for $3 a bag just 200 feet away on Main Street.

McGraw noted the long wait times for a slot at either of the Keenan House sites. Brien Center Medical Director and BMC physician Jennifer Michaels confirmed this, saying the waits were around four to six weeks.

"People shouldn't have to wait," Michaels later told The Eagle. "It puts them at risk. If you had a heart attack, no one would say, `You have to wait.' This is life-threatening. But this is a treatable disease."

Michaels said that every $1 spent for treatment saves society $10 for related problems. Particularly with the Brien Center's "wrap around" approach to each client that treats a panoply of mental health and other related issues in tandem with addiction. She said around 100 beds are needed in the county, and could easily be filled.

Weed trouble

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It's not just heroin that's wreaking havoc. Around the room, talk also turned to a bevy of other threats to young people: tobacco, vaping and, most of all, exploding marijuana use in the age of legalization.

Jim Mucia, a social worker who is the director of the Brien Center's child and adolescent division, says weed's healthful aura is creating a more permissive culture that shrugs at the teenager's morning bong hit, for instance, and sustained all-day high.

"I do think this is the next big deal," he said. "I'm seeing a lot of daily use ... it's growing exponentially because it's [seen as] this herb that's organic and good for you."

Pot use is going up, alcohol use is going down, said Brenda Butler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Brien Center and at BMC.

"Parents are smoking," she said. "It's legal in the state, so the family environment is saying it's OK."

But in South County, alcohol has been the teen drug of choice over the years, said Ananda Timpane, executive director of Railroad Street Youth Project.

Darrell Fennelly, the Stockbridge police chief, pointed to Colorado, where the fallout from a legal weed culture is now showing wear and tear on communities. He said safety problems, like related car crashes, are beginning to stack up there.

"It's only a matter of time," he said of the Berkshires' uncharted legal weed landscape.

And particularly since interested marijuana entrepreneurs are starting to line up at Great Barrington's door for permits, said Jennifer Tabakin, Great Barrington's town manager.

Money trouble

Then there's the money problem.

"We need adequate reimbursement rates," Mucia said, noting that year after year, the low payout from the state guts their workforce, and workers can find higher paying jobs elsewhere. He said it's not a "sexy" issue to focus on, but it's key.

In this vein, Macbeth rued the stagnant rates for outpatient services, which she said some lawmakers are trying to change by proposing increases.

"We need to get more money past Springfield," McGraw said of state aid devoted to the opioid epidemic.

Pignatelli said more money is being spent in the east given the immense scourge in cities like Fall River and Lawrence.

"The money's always going to be a problem," he said to the group. "You don't have any money, we don't have any money."

But there is desire to make it better. "I want everyone to know that we are committed to South County," Macbeth said.

Pignatelli said it was time for everyone to move out of the world of ideas, and get specific — to make a plan.

"That puts us in a better position to get money," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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