The opioid crisis: Addressing trauma, showing compassion, seeking prevention
Note: This article, written by Cherry Sullivan, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on July 17, 2017.
For the past year, the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s health page has given Hampshire HOPE this monthly forum to talk to readers directly about the toll the opioid epidemic is taking on Hampshire County communities and the intense public health effort being made in response.
Hampshire HOPE is the county’s opioid prevention coalition run through the city of Northampton’s health department. The subjects of these columns have run the gamut: the measures our local house of correction, probation department and treatment clinics are taking to help people recover from their addiction to opioids; ways Northampton police, the district attorney’s office and Cooley Dickinson Hospital are responding; a tireless mother who started a resource center for people struggling with addiction and those who love them; and the grassroots building of the Northampton Recovery Center.
All of these actions take our community solidly in the right direction — that of saving lives and increasing our empathy as a community toward people struggling with addiction as well as our understanding of the impact on their circle of loved ones. Yet there remains so much to be done.
Hampshire HOPE continues to work on three main goals: Preventing first use and misuse of opioids and heroin among youth, preventing overdose deaths, and closing the gaps in prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services. These goals require a mix of tangible efforts, like specific programs and intangible changes, such as what I wrote in the first column that ran in this space July 25, 2016: the need to “join together to reduce shame and discrimination experienced by those struggling with addiction and increase compassion and understanding by everyone else.”
I said at the time that this requires “a cultural shift that values all human beings, no matter their struggles.”
That notion still defines the work ahead. We are still shaping that cultural shift and finding ways to initiate new programs or make policy changes to address the opioid epidemic. For me, last month’s “Hope Remembrance and Recovery: Healing from the Opioid Crisis,” an event Hampshire HOPE organized with our many community partners, was another call to action. We built a wall of remembrance at Union Station in Northampton so that those who have died as a result of addiction will never be forgotten and a companion wall of recovery to inspire others looking for relief. The walls will become a traveling testament to our community’s efforts to change the course of this epidemic — and the stories and pictures posted on them make an emotional patchwork of human suffering and resilience.
We will continue to address that suffering and tap that resilience as we refine our efforts. We aim to nurture initiatives already launched and draw more attention to concepts like Adverse Childhood Experiences (known as ACEs) and harm reduction.
The 1995 ACEs study, undertaken by the HMO Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, proved that negative childhood experiences —such as living in a home with substance use disorders, having a parent in prison, or witnessing violence — have tremendous lifelong health consequences, including higher rates of substance use disorder and other physical maladies. In partnership with our area youth substance use prevention coalitions, we intend to improve our public health approach to counteract the trauma associated with these adverse childhood experiences and to expand programs that encourage strong families and healthy decision-making. Examples of these are: the Talk They Hear You campaign spearheaded by the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition, encouraging parents to have conversations with their children about substance use; LifeSkills, an evidence-based curriculum now offered in many of our public schools and Strengthening Families, an out-of-school program for families now offered in Easthampton and soon in Ware and Belchertown.
We also must find ways to address deeper social issues, such as isolation and detachment from family units and from our broader community, as we know that these problems are among the factors that can push people into addiction. Trauma is a critical issue that must be addressed as we think about prevention of substance use disorder and work with people in recovery.
While the ACEs study examined the underlying causes of addiction, harm reduction is an approach that seeks to support people with substance use disorder by responding to their needs without judgment or stigma. Harm reduction is motivated by the belief that people deserve the same level of compassion and support whether they are in treatment and substance free or still using.
The goals of harm reduction are to help people make choices that reduce the negative consequences of their drug use, to prevent the spread of diseases associated with use, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, and to keep people alive by preventing overdose. Approaching addiction with this foundation of love and acceptance helps build vital relationships that can serve to break through the isolation often associated with drug use. These relationships, in turn, encourage less risky behavior and provide a way for people to talk about their drug use openly, rather than hide in shame. Hands down, harm reduction saves lives.
Another purpose of the June 15 “Hope, Remembrance and Recovery” event was to draw more community members into involvement with Hampshire HOPE and its affiliated organizations. We hope many will join us as we continue to build personal connections, foster trust and work toward a deeper understanding of the roles we all play, as individuals and agencies, in addressing this problem in our community. Help us be the leaders across the state and in our country. We all have a stake in this and we are all part of the solution. You can find ways to get involved by signing up for our mailing list at www.hampshirehope.org.
J. Cherry Sullivan is program coordinator of Hampshire HOPE, Hampshire County’s opioid prevention coalition run through the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column about local efforts to address the opioid epidemic.