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Battling overdoses, stigmas within the local area an uphill battle

HELP WITH OVERDOSES — EMTs with the Steubenville Fire Department check equipment on one of the city’s ambulances. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — With the number and frequency of overdoses on the rise, first responders rely on Narcan, the medication that reverses the effects of opioids, to try to save the lives of individuals abusing them.

The health care community says it’s a game-changer.

“We do a leave-behind kit,” TEMS Joint Ambulance District Chief Clark Crago said. TEMS , working with the University of Pittsburgh, Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board and Coleman’s, secured funding for Jefferson County Strategies for Coordinating Overdose Prevention Efforts — which includes information on prevention and recovery resources that are available as well as Narcan leave-behind kits.

“Some people don’t agree with that, but some families have reached the end where they don’t know what else or where else to go to help a loved one with the crisis. This gives them hope,” Crago added.

But not everyone’s a fan: Critics are brutal, particularly on social media, referring to Narcan as a “crutch” and complain it’s a waste of time, resources and money.

“Naloxone has become the safeguard against death,” one Facebook poster proclaimed. “It’s the addicts crutch that they can do whatever they want and won’t die. Although many still do because it doesn’t get there in time. PLEASE DONT SAY I DONT KNOW WHAT IM TALKING ABOUT …I T HAS COME DIRECTLY FROM MULTIPLE ADDICTS MOUTHS TO ME.. stop giving it out and maybe…just maybe a few would be too afraid to try more or try new stuff or buy from an unknown dealer??? Stop the crutches!!!”

“…I have very little compassion for these people that OD on a regular basis knowing the Narcan will save them…” another wrote.

“…Here’s a resource…..don’t do drugs that kill you……” yet another declared.

“I can’t read the social media comments anymore, because people will say, ‘Let them die. Don’t give them Narcan. Just let them die, it’s natural selection’,” said Laura Trifonoff, coordinator of Jefferson County’s Phoenix Program, also known as the Adult Drug Court Program. “What happened to compassion for others? People are so quick to judge until it’s their child or grandchild. It’s heartbreaking.”

William Holt, executive director of Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board, said people who haven’t worked in the addiction field or known someone who experienced it don’t understand “just how hijacked your life becomes.”

“Nobody grows up thinking, ‘I want to be an addict when I grow up’,” Holt said. “So, blaming individuals for how they’ve gotten to that point is not really helpful. I talk with a lot of people who say ‘where’s the accountability, the personal accountability?’ But when you’re in the midst of addiction, it’s extremely difficult to get out of it.”

Regardless of what people think they know about addiction, Holt said the reality is that, “Individuals in crisis, whether they’re overdosing or something else, are often more open to treatment for that addiction.”

“People say if someone is using drugs and not having any consequences, why should they be motivated for change, but that’s when they’re most motivated for treatment,” Holt said.

“The thing I always try to explain to those people is often they’ve made up their minds these individuals are bad, weak and beyond help. You can believe all those things, but when it comes down to it, treatment is much more cost-effective than incarceration,” Holt said. “Depending on the area and the crime statistics, the return on investment in treatment is between two-to-one and four-to-one, so for every $1 spent on treatment, you save $2 and $4 on law enforcement and crime reduction.”

“Frank,” in recovery for six years, said Narcan can save lives.

“You’re not in a mental capacity when you’re in active addiction to do anything productive, “said Frank, whose name was changed to protect his privacy. “Obviously, you can’t save yourself. I can see the mentality people get into, it being sort of a crutch and people using it might be like, ‘It doesn’t matter, this can bring me back.’ But that’s the darkness of addiction.”

He said it gave him a second chance.

“I’ve been there, I’ve overdosed. I had several minor overdoses that didn’t require hospitalization, but I had one major overdose where my father found me, unconscious and blue, and rushed me to the hospital, and they administered Narcan. I was in a really dark place in my life at that point, I didn’t want to live — that’s not the way I feel now, I’m really grateful to be alive today and for the fact that my family cared about me when I couldn’t care about myself.”

Frank said fentanyl, the synthetic opioid behind the uptick in overdose deaths across the nation, “changes the whole game, I think Narcan is a necessity because of that.” He said heroin was his drug of choice but it was fentanyl that nearly killed him.

“Street fentanyl, some of the derivatives of it are way more potent than the stuff they use medically,” he said.

He also pointed out the road to recovery isn’t going to be the same for everybody: Some individuals battling substance abuse disorders go unwillingly into treatment but eventually come to realize why they’re there and want to stay clean.

For him, he said it was more a realization that his life was a disaster.

“I could no longer deny how much I’d hurt my family and myself, the destruction I was causing, the shame and guilt I felt, feeling like a worthless human being,” he said. “It had to change or I just had to not exist.”

Even after six years, he said it’s not easy seeing others still struggling to break free.

“It’s so complex when you’re going through it, but once you’re in recovery, once you get to that point, it’s so simple — all you see is the senseless suffering,” he said. “But I know how difficult it is for someone to get to the point where they say, ‘Enough is enough’.”

Ashley Wilson, a registered nurse and community engagement facilitator for Pitt’s HEALing Communities Study, said recovery “has to be on their terms.”

“Our philosophy is you can’t save a dead person,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you Narcan them, it’s not their time. It’s not something somebody else can choose. Whenever they’re ready to go into recovery is the time it can possibly work. It’s kind of like ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’ You can lead somebody to all the right programs but unless they’re ready” it’s not going to work.

HEALing Communities, a multi-state, multi-county initiative, is working to reduce opioid-related deaths by 40 percent during the next three years. Funded by the National Institute of Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, HEALing Communities is using evidence-based practices across health care, behavioral health, justice and other community-based settings to develop a strategy to save lives.

Wilson said the stigma associated with substance abuse is part of what HEALing Communities wants to change.

“There are family members and community members dealing with this but are afraid to say it because of the stigma that is associated with it,” she said. “People think it’s just a lower socio-economic class dealing with these issues, but it can be any socio-economic background.”

Wilson said HEALing Communities brings together a cross-section of the population, including doctors, school personnel, faith-based organizations, emergency personnel and people with lived experience, to find ways to combat substance abuse. The study, which officially kicked off in Jefferson County on July 1, is rooted in the idea that the lessons learned in the counties participating in the study can be applied elsewhere.

“We want to be able to help anybody and everybody we can,” Wilson said. “Some people think it’s just lower socio-economic people, but it could be somebody you know who gets a knee replacement or a hip replacement and needs to be on medication longer and one thing leads to another and another.”

Wilson said she, too, steers clear of social media, “just because it causes arguments and makes it worse.” Instead, she said the HEALing Communities team tries to get information into the community in “more effective ways,” like training sessions and town hall meetings.

“If people think it’s never going to affect their family — you hope it doesn’t, but if it does — we want them to know the resources we have in Jefferson County and that they can use them to get the help they need when they’re ready,” Wilson said.

Frank said to outsiders, “it looks like the addict wants to die, that they want to be where they’re at.”

“They don’t see the dark side — they don’t see where the person is using against their will and is absolutely miserable and can’t see a way out, that they want to die because they can’t see a way out,” he said. “Narcan treatment can provide them with a way they can get out. Narcan can save a person’s life and give them a chance to get to that point. And some of the people I see in long-term recovery are some of the most useful I’ve ever met — they’re hardworking and love life, so I think it’s very worthwhile.”

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