New article outlines St. Joseph County as model for fighting opioid epidemic
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A team of experts in the South Bend community are working together, digging in to what methods are working to fight opioid addiction in St. Joseph County, and if those methods can be used as a model for the state or the nation.
It’s collaboration between professors at IUSB and Notre Dame, Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, Memorial Hospital and more that led to a recently published article outlining intervention methods unique to St. Joseph County.
“We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg,” said Todd Whitmore, an associate professor at Notre Dame and a certified addiction peer recovery coach. He says when it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic, the county and the state still has a long way to go.
In the article, the authors write an increase of 44 percent in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2017 in St. Joseph County, although the 2018 projections do show a decrease.
“I feel, and our opinion in the paper is that we are certainly one of the leaders, and I consider us a model of combating the opioid epidemic with the five interventions that we’re doing,” said John Gallagher, an associate professor at IUSB and an addictions therapist. “These interventions are unique, they’re scientifically driven, and they’re not commonly found throughout the country.”
The interventions include adding naltrexone to county jails. Naltrexone is a drug that keeps a person from feeling the effects of opioids. Other interventions include adding medication-assisted treatments in drug court, adding recovery coaches to hospital emergency rooms, keeping Narcan readily available in the community and adding harm-reduction recovery groups, which Gallagher says he’d peg as the most important one.
“If there’s say 10 people that are in recovery, there’s going to be 10 different definitions of recovery,” said Gallagher.
Harm reduction recovery groups focus on those who aren’t ready for full abstinence recovery treatment. Full abstinence treatment is more common and Gallagher feels might even contribute to the problem.
“The addiction profession as a whole has contributed towards the opioid epidemic if they are dictating treatment goals to patients,” he said.
But most importantly the paper is meant to spark conversation and highlight collaboration.
“No one can do it alone, no one service can do everything,” said Whitmore.
Whitmore has worked with the problem firsthand as a recovery coach. Recovery coaches are essentially life coaches to someone struggling with addiction. Many of them are also in recovery.
“We enable the person we’re working with to see that recovery is possible,” said Whitmore.
He says what’s more startling than the statistics is the amount of hidden addiction.
“When I talk to people about being a recovery coach, I would say about three of every four people I talk to know someone who has a substance use disorder. That’s how big the problem is,” said Whitmore.
The paper hopes to shed light on that problem and help destigmatize addiction in order to ultimately save lives.
“These are our brothers and sisters. Even if not literally, these are human beings who are suffering,” said Whitmore. “We are not going to be able to attend to this until we approach each person as our brother and sister.”