Editorial: Public health servants rising to meet opioid challenge

  • Jill Shanahan from Tapestry runs a Narcan nasal spray workshop training people in the use of the life-saving drug. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Narcan nasal spray and packaging. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 7/20/2019 1:25:51 PM

Keeping people alive. That’s the mission of public health professionals like Jill Shanahan, an assistant director for drug user health at the Florence-based Tapestry clinic. The health care organization recently hosted four free public health training sessions, including one at Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls.

Their efforts were in response to the region’s continuing struggle against opioids. After a modest decline in overdose deaths, fatalities spiked in 2018 due at least in part to the emergence of a stronger synthetic opioid: fentanyl. Besides education, Tapestry offers a syringe access program (in Greenfield, it’s located at the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew) among other programs including a recently started support group for drug users. Other local organizations, such as The RECOVER Project, also host community programs.

The community classes covered information about narcotics and included hands-on instruction on administering naloxone, which can counteract the effects of a drug overdose and isn’t otherwise harmful. Included in the workshop was a discussion about “The Good Samaritan Law,” which was enacted in Massachusetts in 2012 and prohibits patients and responders from being arrested for using drugs if they call emergency services for an overdose. Notably, the law does not protect people from being arrested for other offenses they may have committed such as intending to sell drugs.

Through Tapestry’s public health education, Shanahan and her colleagues seek to empower bystanders with the ability to act in an emergency situation.

“It’s not my job to tell somebody to use or not to use. It’s my job to help keep them alive in those moments. I always think — what’s the alternative?” she said, noting that “meeting (users) where they are” will increase their chance of surviving an overdose.

That, in turn, could lead them to recovery — which, of course, isn’t an easy task.

Over the past decade, there have been many, many editorials published on this page directed at different aspects of the opioid epidemic — and there will undoubtedly be many more printed here in the future. The work to overcome this public health challenge is impressive. Likewise are this region’s many public health servants who rise to meet every challenge; we commend them for their ongoing work.

By meeting people where they’re at and by treating drug users as equals, without judging, Shanahan and so many others like her are making an impact that’s far more profound than simple instruction — they’re eroding the stigma that surrounds addiction.

Only when it’s gone can we, as a society, extend non-judgmental assistance to those who so desperately need our help.

Greenfield Recorder

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