Opioid Abuse Forum Looks Toward Solutions
WETHERSFIELD - A panel of opioid addiction care providers-from first responders to the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS)-outlined an evolving strategy for what is seen as a growing crisis, as audience members that filled the packed Wethersfield High School auditorium called for more preventative and earlier intervention measures for a problem that claimed the lives of 5 Wethersfield residents since last January.

       “What you’re all doing up there is great,” said town resident Ivanna Marrero, whose son fought-and beat-drug addiction. “But we need to get them before they get to your level.”

       The panel actually represented many levels-from addiction service administrators and nonprofit programs, to first responders-but many of those in attendance agreed that conversations with teens and adolescents need to happen early, and speakers echoed the sentiment.

       The forum-organized by State Representatives Russ Morin and Tony Guerrera-featured DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, former DMHAS Commissioner and Behavioral Health Network President Patricia Rehmer, AIDS CT Director Shaw Lang, AETNA Operations Supervisor Terrence Wain, Intercommunity Inc. President and CEO Kimberly Beauregard, and CCHD Assistant Director Ann Hartman.

       “If you can keep adolescent using any substance until 18-even if you’re genetically loaded-there’s a 90 percent chance they won’t become addicted later in life,” Rehmer said.

       Make it to 21, and those odds jump to 95 percent, she said.

       But access is another issue, residents said. Donnalyn Notaro, a town resident who lost her teenage daughter to addiction last summer, is convinced that it was the largest factor in her case.

       “My daughter would still be alive today if she had the proper support,” Notaro said during the discussion portion that followed panelist comments. “It’s so hard to get, whether it’s insurance. If she had the help she needed in high school, we’d be in a very different place right now.”

       Marrero told a similar story-of getting the runaround from service hotlines when she sought help for her son.

       “I’m sober, and I wanted to pull my hair out,” she said.

       Panelists stressed what they say is a need for education programs-such as those implemented in schools-to be “evidence-based.” Those can be few and far between because the surge in opioid abuse-expanded to prescription painkillers as a precursor to less expensive street heroin-is relatively new, they said.

       “There’s been a crisis across the country. It’s not just Connecticut,” Delphin-Rittmon said.

       Nationally, there’s been a 300 percent increase in heroin and opiate abuse-related cases. In state, DMHAS reports that 50 percent of clients served come to them with opioid-driven addictions, she said.

       “That’s a change for us,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “It used to be alcohol.”

       So Departments and nonprofits are responding with a slew of measures that include police department drop boxes-reported to have collected 23,000 pounds of unused prescription pills last year-as well as encouraging and facilitating citizen training in the use of the overdose reversing Narcan drug.

       To the latter end, recent legislation has made access to Narcan easier by allowing licensed healthcare professionals to administer it, while requiring that municipalities equip first responders with the drug. Pharmacies can also prescribe it.

       Locally, Board of Education Chair Bobbie Hughes Granato-who attended but admitted that the scope and proximity of the trend came as a surprise to her-expressed a desire to initiate a discussion within the school district regarding education and prevention.

       “A Board of Education doesn’t know what’s going on unless we hear from people like you,” she said during the discussion. “It’s hard to get up there and say what you said at a Board of Education meeting. Trust me, we will be doing something.”