Opioid Addictions Addressed in Forum…Sept. 30, 2015
By Nancy Arsenault
“I’ve met many recovered alcoholics and cocaine addicts. I have never met a recovered heroin addict,” said Bolton Police Chief Vince Alfano last Wednesday night at the Heroin and Opioid Education Forum in Bolton, sponsored by the Bolton Human Services and Safety Committee.
The forum was offered in partnership with the student health programs of the Nashoba Regional School District, which is overseen by Stow resident Donna Linstrom, coordinator of Health and Wellness for the school district.
Alfano said that Bolton is not unlike Stow, Lancaster and nearly every other area town, all of which are experiencing a serious heroin and opioid problem; a problem that is growing and does not have a positive outcome for those addicted to the drugs.
“It affects our sleepy little towns just like it affects Boston and Worcester,” he said. “In the past year, there have been several deaths in Bolton because of heroin. Every housebreak can be directly attributed to people stealing in order to support a heroin habit. We have had police officers injured when involved with those addicted to heroin.”
As for his reference to never having met a recovered heroin addict, Alfano explained, “People die from this addiction and the side effects of using this drug.” He urged those in the audience to seek help for family members or anyone they know who has succumbed to this drug problem. “Call the police, state agencies, your fire department, EMS, call anyone in public safety. They will all know who to call to get help.”
Addressing Teen Behavior
State Senator Jennifer Flanagan opened the forum, explaining an expanded screening program that is coming to school districts across the state. Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), helps identify alcohol or drug use and guides follow-up counseling and treatment if a problem exists. With adolescents, SBIRT is an effective prevention and early intervention strategy, she said “If we find you are at risk, we want to find you the proper treatment. We are finding that if parents and others are waiting until seventh and eighth grade to start talking about these issues, it is too late.”
Donna Linstrom of the Nashoba School District said that school nurses in the district just took the training for SBIRT, which the district plans to roll out in the seventh and tenth grades this year. She said there will also be a parent educational component to the screening. She said that sixth-grade health teachers are also piloting a new evidence-based prevention program, Life Skills Training, supported by the Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services this fall.
Affordable and Available
Panel member Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early said, “There is no quality control with heroin. A bag is less than the price of a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, so anybody can get a bag of heroin. We need to find solutions.” He said that dealers often cut the pure heroin with other substances that increase the potency of the drug by 50 to 60 percent or more, making it possible for users to die with just one hit of the drug.
Richard Ellberg, Emergency Medicine and ICU director at Nashoba Valley Medical Center, said part of the opiate solution can be to better educate physicians about lessening the amount of prescription drugs being prescribed after routine surgery or other procedures to alleviate pain. “You don’t need 60 Vicodin after minor surgery,” he said. “Deaths from prescription opiates are significantly trending upward, with Middlesex County having the highest death rate for opiate overdoses in the state. There has been an increase of 57 percent since 2012 in the number of unintended opiate deaths,” he said.
Ellberg added that those who become addicted to opiates are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin. “We are running out of Narcan to deal with all of the overdoses,” he said of the reversal drug used by emergency responders to stop the effects of an overdose.
Law enforcement officials on the panel confirmed the existence of the Good Samaritan Law, which encourages companions and those with a person who may be overdosing, to call 911 without fear of getting arrested or being reported themselves, if found to also be abusing drugs. “You are not going to get in trouble for calling for help,” said Ellberg.
The panel also offered families the option to obtain a Narcan treatment kit of their own, saying that many Walgreen’s locations have supplies from the state, ready to distribute to those who show a need. The cost of the kits is often covered through regular medical insurance, according to the panel.
While much of the panel discussion addressed prevention of drug abuse, several speakers spoke of treatment programs that are growing for those who have succumbed to heroin and opiate use. “Addiction is not a disease of choice, but a chronic brain disease (related to a specific gene) and needs to be treated as such,” said Susan Avalione, board member of the A.E.D. Foundation, a group committed to assist, educate and defeat addiction. “Using opiates or heroin may be a choice the first time someone does it. What happens after that becomes that disease and develops the bad behavior that affects family, community and the whole of society,” she said.
While the effects of their behavior often alienate the addict from family, friends and employers, Avalione said one must remember that, “The addict is still a person who belongs to someone. There is someone who cares for that person and someone who loves them, so we need to find them treatment.”
Heidi DiRoberto of Spectrum Health, spoke of the shortage of available treatment beds, even with more centers being opened throughout the state. “We can’t keep up with the need,” she said. That sentiment was echoed by some audience members who spoke of family members now incarcerated for illegal drug use, who really just need treatment, but no available beds can be found in area centers. Representative Kate Hogan’s office offered to work with those individuals seeking treatment center availability.
A Bolton parent who wished to remain anonymous, whose children have since moved through the school system, said that in the years her children were at the high school it was often the unsupervised detention room where kids first were introduced to illegal drugs. “I hope that situation is being addressed,” she said.
Ellen Manning of Stow attended the forum, and works with troubled teens in Newton. She said she feels that Stow needs some kind of gathering space for teens that does not have structured activities and schedules, but is some place they can just drop in. She had heard talk of possibly making the Crescent Street Fire Station into a teen center, an idea she fully supported.
The Bolton Human Services and Safety Committee plans to continue its partnership with the schools and the officials on the panel and may revisit this topic in the future if local conditions or situations warrant a second public discussion.