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Opioid Awareness

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Expert Voices: The opioid crisis, today and tomorrow

Jodie Altman

Campus director of Renaissance Campus at Kids Escaping Drugs

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
The stigma associated with addiction. This stigma keeps people from getting the help they need. Currently, only one in 10 people with substance abuse disorders receives treatment. Oftentimes the person struggling feels shame and fear. They worry about what will happen when people find out about their drug use and what their life would be like without drugs. Families feel judged by society and oftentimes feel as if they have failed. Society needs to understand that addiction is not a choice. It is a disease.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Follow your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. Look for the warning signs — a drastic change in personality, a decrease in hygiene, disengaged behavior. Have they stopped caring about the people and activities that they were once most interested in? Never be afraid to ask for help and I encourage you to seek help as soon as possible. You will never be wrong for being proactive and it could save your loved one’s life. There are many resources available for families and no matter how difficult things may seem, never give up.


Dr. Richard Blondell

Vice chair for addiction medicine for the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
The over-prescription of opioid medications. Physicians and other clinicians now prescribe three to four times more opioids than they did 20 years ago. There is a direct correlation between the level of prescriptions with the number of opioid overdose deaths and with admissions to drug addiction treatment programs.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Don’t ignore the early signs of addiction. If the loved one rejects a gentle request to go for treatment, then members of the family could ask a professional at a treatment program to help them set up an intervention that is designed to facilitate admission to a treatment program.

What can the community do to help?
Get educated. This current epidemic is fueled by prejudice and ignorance. Drugs change behavior, and those who become addicted need the help and understanding of others to return to the person they were before. The best help for the addicted person is based on medical science and not uninformed opinions.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
Things could get worse before they get better. As physicians, dentists and other clinicians begin to prescribe more wisely and limit their use of opioids, some addicted patients may turn to illicit sources for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. In turn, this may increase the likelihood of overdose deaths. However, a reduction in the prescription of opioids will eventually prevent new cases of addiction. It is always better to prevent addiction than create new cases of addiction and then try to treat them. As such, over the long-term things should improve. Increasing the availability of treatment for those addicted will help us turn this epidemic around more quickly in the long run.


Dr. George Burnett

Medical director of behavioral health at Independent Health

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
No matter how frustrating and painful seeing a loved one suffer from addiction can be, never give up hope on them achieving sobriety and continuously support your loved one’s battle with addiction.

What can the community do to help?
The community can work to improve access for those addicted to effective evidence-based treatments in a timely fashion. I believe the local community has been making good progress on this front. Arm yourself with knowledge and awareness about what the opioid crisis is and how to prevent it in your family. The New York State Department of Health website is a great place to start. Speak up — talk to your primary care physician about your situation. New York State has a certification program for addiction treatment providers. Your health care provider and health insurance company can help you find the right type of treatment and keep your inquiry confidential.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
I believe there will be a reduction in the severity of the crisis in the near future as the amount of opioids prescribed will be reduced and public education of the dangers of opioids becomes more widespread. I think that, combined with timely effective evidence-based treatments for opioid addiction, is putting the community on the right path to dealing with a devastating problem in our community.


Anne Constantino

President and CEO of Horizon Health Services

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
We cannot become complacent as statistics suggest fewer deaths.  No deaths are acceptable as they are preventable.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
There are no easy or quick answers. Get educated about this disease. Stay connected to resources and your loved one, even when they are doing well. Substance use disorders are chronic and relapsing disorders. Stability in recovery comes after time.

What can the community do to help?
Reduce the stigma through campaigns that focus on addiction as a brain disorder and not a willful choice. Everyone should have a Narcan kit and be trained in its use. Families and parents should be very clear about underage alcohol and drug use. Underage use of alcohol and drugs is highly correlated with future substance abuse problems.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
We don’t know if the deaths have peaked yet. However, there appears to be no reduction in the disease. Good news, more people are getting educated and community partners are working together more closely to help deliver resources. With schools getting involved, too, we have a better chance of educating the next generation with the facts about prescription drugs and heroin, allowing them to make educated decisions with health care and life choices.


Dr. Ann Griepp

Medical director for behavioral health management at Univera Healthcare

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
Expansion of treatment. We need more providers of medication-assisted treatment and have them available with walk-in capabilities.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Respect the opponent this disease is. Get informed and get support for yourself. Have Narcan in your possession and know how to use it. Learn what someone who is using looks like and what someone in withdrawal looks like.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
Know about naloxone — how to get it and how to administer it. Go online to the Erie County Opioid Epidemic Task Force and click on the naloxone tab.

What can the community do to help?
Reduce the stigma. Embrace it as a disease rather than a weakness. Know the Buffalo and Erie County Addiction Hotline 831-7007 and have it in your cell phone. Dispose of any unused opioid prescriptions in an appropriate way. Be aware of your available resources.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
Watch for increases in methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana in the wake of opioids.


Howard K. Hitzel

President and CEO of Best Self Behavioral Health

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Your loved one has a lifelong chronic illness that can be treated.  Relapse is a symptom of the disease that many will experience. It does not mean failure. The best thing families can do is to educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of the disease and how they can best support someone who is struggling with addiction. Most importantly they should seek help for themselves. There are support groups and counseling available to help support families going through this. They are not alone.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
People should know that there is hope. This is a treatable disease that, once managed, can result in individuals living very productive and fulfilling lives.

What can the community do to help?
I think that we as a community are already doing a lot to help improve the local opioid crisis. We have realized that it’s not just the responsibility of the medical field, behavioral health, law enforcement or family to address this issue. Various sectors of the community have come together and some really innovative things are happening.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
We still have work to do but as we continue to put the needed resources into this the future looks brighter for us all.


Avi Israel

Founder and president of Save the Michaels of the World

What is the most critical issue in the opioid crisis?
What we need most is immediate access to inpatient treatment. Local health officials recommend outpatient treatment, but for people who are deeply addicted to hard drugs, outpatient isn’t as effective as a residential program. People have a very difficult time getting into inpatient treatment. Save the Michaels can place you in as little as 24 hours.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Speak up early! Ignoring the situation or categorizing it as a “just a phase” is dangerous because of the way opioids can grab you so fast. Learn how to support the person in a healthy way, instead of enabling their disease.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
Addiction is a brain disease. No one is immune from it. It doesn’t matter if you are from a “good” family, if you are a “good” parent or if your child goes to a “good” school. You can’t avoid addiction by “being smart,” by only taking certain kinds of drugs or by only using drugs on the weekends. Addiction can happen to anyone.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
I anticipate the availability of many more synthetic drugs. Most of these drugs are not illegal in their uncombined form, most are highly addictive and most are deadly.


Tammy Owen & Kelly Dodd

President and CEO of 211 Central Referral; Director of 211 Central Referral

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
We need to make it as easy as possible for people in our entire community to know where to call to get help. We need to connect people to the information and services in our community and reduce all of the barriers to access these services. Addicts and the loved ones of addicts should not have to search for where to turn for help or have to independently navigate through an algorithm of confusing information, treatment and support options without the expert guidance of trained addiction professionals. To accomplish this we need to highly publicize a common number that all people can remember to turn to, whether it is directly to the Buffalo and Erie County Addiction Hotline 831-7007 or through 2-1-1 to the staff of the Addiction Hotline.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Embrace the reality that addiction has impacted your loved one and actively seek support. The type of information and support that individuals need will be extremely variable. 2-1-1 can help to direct callers to experts who specialize in addiction as well as provide information and referral to over 9,000 different services available in Western New York.

What can the community do to help?
Be compassionate and be there when someone asks for help. Help to eliminate the social stigma associated with addiction and do your part to approach it with the same veracity, compassion and resources that the community approaches other illnesses such as cancer.


Jessica Pirro

CEO of Crisis Services

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Recovery is a process. They are fighting a battle and it can take time to see progress or success. Also, remember relapse can be part of recovery. Do not give up if your loved one uses again. Continue to support them but also know when you need to step back or turn to professionals for help, support and encouragement. This disease affects the entire family and it is important that help is not only sought for your loved one but for you.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
That no one is immune to addiction. We see this issue crossing all ages and backgrounds. If we know someone that has an addiction, we have to ask them regularly how they are doing. We see when people are doing well everyone is relieved. Then sometimes the ongoing monitoring stops. We have to continually check in.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
We cannot let the lack of daily headlines make us believe the problem is going away. Through a lot of hard work, we have been able to slow the number of deaths in our community. We need to be conscious of the next generation of potential addicts and work to prevent access from the start. This issue did not happen overnight and it cannot be cured overnight.


Dr. Thomas Schenk

Senior Vice President, Chief Medical Officer for BlueCross BlueShield of WNY

What is the most critical issue in the local opioid crisis?
Getting individuals suffering with addiction access to the immediate help that they need and reducing the stigma that can impede that access.

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Get help and support for yourselves. It is overwhelming to know what to do, where to go and how to cope. Our community is fortunate to have so many resources, support groups and organizations that can help.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
It impacts everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. There is no portion of the population immune to the crisis.

What can the community do to help?
Respond with compassion and understanding. Do not battle new treatment programs that are introduced, as people living in your community need them.


Mia Thorton

Director of outpatient services, BryLin Behavioral Health System

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Help is accessible and with the appropriate level of care, many individuals can achieve and maintain sobriety. By familiarizing themselves with area providers, families can co-author impactful interventions for their loved ones.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
That you are not alone and there is no shame in seeking the appropriate healthcare. All of the persons who benefit from BryLin Behavioral Health System’s Substance Use Disorder Clinic are from diverse backgrounds and professions, solidifying the reality that this epidemic is universal and deserves our collective community response.

What can the community do to help?
Every member of this community has the opportunity to have a meaningful share in our community response efforts by educating themselves, reaching out to the Erie County Department of Health so as to receive Narcan (also known a naloxone) training, and by making substance use disorder discussable in their family and community.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
I am hopeful that the overdose rates will continue to decrease, that pyschoeducation training will increase and that families will be actively engaged in supporting those struggling with substance use disorder.


Dr. Paul Updike

Catholic Health Medical Director, Substance Use Treatment Services

What is your main piece of advice for families dealing with an addicted loved one?
Try to see the behaviors that are difficult to understand as a symptom of the disease. It may make the behaviors easier to deal with. Addiction is a disease that requires treatment and not something that will just go away.

What is the most important aspect of the crisis that people should know?
Addiction is a disease that requires treatment. It is a disease that responds to treatment. There is hope that people can recover.

What can the community do to help?
The more we can think about addiction as a disease, requiring treatment like other chronic illnesses, the fewer barriers there will be to people getting the help they need, and ultimately, less of a stigma associated with opiate addition.

What will this crisis look like in the near future?
I think things may improve in the future. Compared to when I started in this field, attitudes have changed dramatically. Access to treatment is steadily improving. There is a much greater awareness about which treatments are effective.

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