Opioid crisis a multi-layered social issue

February 05, 2018 11:50 AM

When Hope House opened its doors in Albany in 1967, the volunteers led by then Father Howard Hubbard could never have foreseen the challenges they would face to meet the demands of the opioid crisis 50 years later.

"There's a lot of desperation out there," said Hope House Executive Director Kevin Connally.


He laments that treatment funding has been cut as demand soars as the scope of treatment needs to be broad to save lives.

"A lot of them have mental health issues," he says. "A lot of them have physical health issues. And we are limited. I need to be able to increase our workforce to be able to provide all those services to the patient."

However, without adequate funding and an ever-increasing patient load, staff burnout further burdens an already stretched system.

Additionally, the face of addiction, as diverse as your neighborhood, workplace, family, necessitates a more holistic approach to treatment. There is no one size fits all.

"From the 600-plus that we are servicing, 70 percent are white middle class," said Mickey Jimenez, regional director of the Capital District Camino Nuevo outpatient and outpatient methadone program in Albany. "Eighteen percent are black African American and 12 percent are Hispanic"

Along with methadone, there are medical and counseling services provided. She's clear: Methadone or suboxone treatment is not swapping one addiction for another. It's about treating a chronic condition and helping addicts regain their lives. 

Stigma is a big barrier to treatment. Since drug addicts are at high risk to relapse, stigma may keep them away repeatedly. Keeping that door to treatment open and unimpeded is critical. That also means providing ongoing support services.

"It's not just the methadone that got me to become clean. It's my counselor. It's the support I got along the way," said "Dan," a recovering addict.

"Jane" and "Dan" are aliases for one suburban couple, a veteran and a college grad, parents of two, who became addicted to medically prescribed opioids. Despite wanting and needing help, the social barriers were daunting.

"You need daycare," said "Jane." "You need to tell your employer that day because you're losing your medicine that day. And then you might be gone for a few weeks. You might be in a group a few times a week. You're going to be missing all kinds of work."

Losing their children finally propelled them into treatment and they've been a year in recovery. Fortunately, they never had a run-in with the law. That might have dashed their chances to regain their pre-addiction life.

"People end up going to jail," said Keith Brown with the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice. "They end up with less opportunity when they get out of jail. They don't get employment. They don't get an education. People don't have quality health care. That's what makes it a public health issue."

Not a criminal issue. And until we change our perspective, we'll never get ahead of the problem, says Brown.

He and Connally point to years of gutting social safety net programs for mental health, homelessness, poverty and now addiction.  Expecting law enforcement to solve all this isn't working. He says it's time to rethink the approach.

"My world looks like an increased focus on the public health aspects of drug use," Brown said. "So it looks like investing in the immediate health and safety of people who use drugs in a way that will keep them alive so that they can recover."


WNYT Staff

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