Heroin: Familiar problem requires swift action
Joanne Sanderson of Greenfield, coordinator of Children's Services for the Hampshire Franklin area for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, was one of the many professionals in attendence at the opiate conference at GCC on Monday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Rep Denise Andrews was present at conference at GCCMonday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh was in the standing room only crowd at GCC on Monday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
DA David Sullivan at Conference. Denise Andrews is in red behind him and next to him is Steven Bradley of Baystate Health. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
John Merrigan at GCC on Monday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
GREENFIELD — If a poor, rural county can be reached by the same heroin problem as a relatively well-to-do suburban county and gritty South Boston, could the solutions not also be the same?
An overflow crowd of 300 to 400 in the Greenfield Community College main building heard from representatives of organizations responding to the problem in these areas at Monday’s heroin and opioid conference.
“We once thought that we were immune to big city problems but now we are painfully aware that no one is immune,” said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.
That growing problem crested recently with a continuing surge in overdose deaths. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the number of suspected overdoses in his jurisdiction — Franklin and Hampshire counties and Athol — is now 11 since mid-December. The number was nine January 31, and seven in mid-Januray.
Woburn Police Chief Robert Ferullo Jr. has seen a similar surge in the past months. Ferullo said his department has responded to an uncharacteristic eight overdose deaths in the past seven weeks.
Woburn District Court Probation Officer Michaeal Higgins and Chief Probation Officer Vincent Piro launched the Heroin Education and Awareness Task Force eight years ago, succeeding in winning $400,000 from legislators to fund treatment beds for the people who came to their office, as probationers or otherwise. They also worked closely with Ferullo and others. Ferullo said this cooperation is important. Both the probation and police departments began to act as social workers, pushing treatment and pushing for resources. The probation officers spend much of their time making phone call after phone call to treatment centers on behalf of people in what they and others describe as a crucial window of hours between realizing they need help and giving in again to addiction.
Now funded to the tune of $500,000 annually through the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, the program continues in it’s de-facto social work function and with prevention and outreach programs in area schools and across the state.
Prevention includes educating parents, Higgins said, and shame is often an obstacle.
“Your kid’s on heroin? Let’s get treatment, who cares what your aunt, or sister or the kid down the street says, or the school system, who cares? Because you’ve got to take action when you can. When you wait too long, you go to wakes and funerals,” Higgins said.
“The education part is the most important part and you’re the ones responsible to give it,” Higgins said.
The HEAT program has helped about 2,000 young people into treatment, Piro said, and educated thousands more.
John McGahan’s experience reaches even further back, as founder of the Gavin Foundation in response to South Boston’s heroin crisis in the 1990s.
The Gavin Foundation runs a juvenile recovery house, among other things, and one lesson McGahan drew is that heroin is never a first step.
“Every kid with an opiate addiction started with alcohol and marijuana,” McGahan said, although the correlation is not inevitable.
Beyond treatment, the foundation reaches out to students at all opportunities, from sports teams to art programs. Education efforts for the older population include distributing information cards to pharmacies, to be put in prescription bags, cautioning patients to treat their prescriptions as a controlled substance, to be stored safely and disposed of immediately when unneeded.
Recovering addicts and health and law enforcement professionals in Franklin County, as elsewhere, have repeatedly identified abuse or over prescription of opioid painkillers as a path to addiction. Prescription pills are as dangerous as pure heroin if misused, and addiction to pills often transfers to cheaper, more abundant heroin. Varying purity and dangerous additives like fentanyl increase the risk of overdose with heroin.
McGahan said community forums like Monday’s are how his program started 17 years ago.
“I know politicians get picked on here because everybody says go to them for funding but that’s how we started 17 years ago,” McGahan said. Sustained pressure from the community resulted in funding for the Cushing Houses, two transitional residential programs for young recovering addicts. “The pressure to politicians will work,” he said.
Other needs identified include support for families and for service providers in order to prevent burnout, needs raised by audience members, as well as a better means of dealing with the most public manifestation of the problem: abandoned needles.
Learn to Cope and GRASP — Grief Recovery After a Substance Abuse Passing — are two family support groups that exist in the state, but not locally. Learn to Cope recently opened a meeting at the Holyoke hospital.
Karen Sims, who lost a grand-daughter she raised as a daughter to a heroin overdose in December of 2012, said it is extremely hard for grieving families, and called on someone to begin survivors’ groups for parents and for adolescents locally. Sims said she hasn’t got the energy.
“I think it was very informative and showed there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the community to help,” said Franklin Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan, who organized the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force of Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin, and arranged the conference. Merrigan said the conference aired ideas, and the next step will likely be to reach out to legislators again with those ideas.
Speaking after the conference, Rep. Denise Andrews said the problem is past any denial.
“We don’t need to have patience to figure out solutions. We were given solutions and we, the collective we, share a responsibility to act with urgency,” Andrews said.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257