Jennifer Kimball: Using community voices to address opioid crisis

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"What do you expect from that family?"

"Frequent flyer."

"He can't stay clean."

You've probably heard these words and phrases used. Maybe you've used them yourself. But who are these words describing? These hurtful words and phrases have been used to describe mothers and fathers, our children, our friends, and our sisters and brothers. One in five Americans knows someone who has been addicted to opioids, and our small, rural county is no exception.

For our communities, the impacts of this crisis are not just numbers, but a reality that cuts all too close. Drug busts and arrests, obituaries in the paper, court hearings and DCF visits are no longer foreign, abstract, or infrequent occurrences but real events that affect our friends and loved ones, co-workers, patients, and the children in our classrooms.

The Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative (BOAPC) is Berkshire County's opioid misuse and overdose prevention coalition. As a collaborative, we bring community partners together to learn, discuss, and develop community-driven strategies to provide a public health response aimed at preventing opioid misuse and its consequences.

Since 2013, BOAPC has been providing education and materials for the purpose of preventing prescription medication misuse, supporting provider training regarding opioids, promoting alternative methods for pain control, providing education about safe storage and disposal of medication (and advocating for additional medication disposal sites), promoting naloxone (Narcan) access and training, increasing the awareness of post-overdose and treatment options, increasing the awareness of and advocating for the establishment of harm reduction services, and reducing the stigma associated with addiction.

How can one small coalition even start to work on a task of such enormity and importance? We can start by listening.

CHALLENGE OURSELVES

Today, BOAPC begins a collaborative monthly column in The Berkshire Eagle. This column seeks to not only inform us about prevention, treatment, and other resources, but also to start the conversations that will challenge us to think about, and work to build, a healthier, more inclusive community.

This public health crisis requires an "all-hands-on-deck," response. A comprehensive response is not only made up of significant financial investments and physical things such as hospital beds, more medication assisted treatment, and more naloxone access. It doesn't focus only on the "bookends" of a crisis (preventing addiction from happening/providing treatment if addiction develops). A comprehensive response requires us to challenge ourselves to rethink our institutions and systems themselves, to confront our preconceived notions about drug use, mental health, and the criminal justice system. It requires us to ensure that our residents have fair and equitable access to education, including evidence-based health education. We must address housing and homelessness, barriers to employment, and demand wages that lift people out of (instead of keep people in) a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. We must tackle our transportation challenges, and work so that everyone has their rightful access to needed services. It demands that we acknowledge the role of trauma in addiction, and that we address the systemic inequalities in our society that are perpetuated by racism, sexism, and homophobia, and prevent our loved ones from living healthy, happy, empowered lives. A comprehensive community response requires that we start listening to new voices and being open to innovative and scientifically-proven methods.

We hope that you can find both information and inspiration with this monthly column, and we invite you to join the conversation. Each month, a different member of our community who has been impacted by the opioid crisis will share a story. The story may be about their interaction with the criminal justice system, or how a syringe access program saved their life, or why building a recovery community is so important to them: It is our goal to empower new voices, to bring some humanity to discussions that so often become clinical and theoretical, or even worse, result in stigmatizing language, blaming, and name-calling.

How can a simple story change anything? Maybe someone who struggled with heroin addiction shares how being called a "junkie" made them feel, and the person reading it decides to address the stigmatizing language being used at their workplace. Maybe a physician reads a story from someone who had trouble getting medication assisted treatment and how it impacted their recovery, and then that physician decides to take the steps to become a prescriber of suboxone. Perhaps a personal recovery story finally nudges a person into seeking treatment. All of these "small" actions have the potential to change and save lives.

Jennifer Kimball is senior planner, Public Health Berkshire Regional Planning Commission coordinator, Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative.




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