Opioid Outreach: The Battle To Reach Those Battling Addiction
How do you reach people before it's too late?
The opioid epidemic in the valley is taking lives. Addicts are risking death every time they use.
How do you reach people before it’s too late?
What does it take to put an end to the scourge? Those are the questions being grappled with across the region.
Here are some of the answers the community has found so far.
Scott Smith’s life was out of control.
He says, “from age 17 to age 34, was living in active addiction.”
Alcohol. Cocaine. It led to abusing opiates, like OxyContin.
“I was at a point where I was trying to overdose. I’d say that I was trying to kill, commit suicide”, Smith admits.
But now he’s clean and celebrating his sobriety, along with the 20th anniversary of Prairie St. John’s hospital.
But sadly, Prairie is feeling the burden of helping addicts more than before.
“People come to us in an acute crisis,” claims Monica McConkey, Director of Business Development at Prairie St. John’s.
The hospital is seeing that crisis get worse.
McConkey explains, “They’re very strong substances and people don’t always have time to get into treatment. They start using and they’re passing away at a rapid rate.”
15 people died after reports of opioid overdoses in 2016 alone, just in Fargo. The numbers continue to climb this year, with overdoses likely leading to deaths in Dilworth and West Fargo in just the last month.
Law enforcement is noticing.
“The increase has actually been going on for a lot longer than a year,” adds Capt. Andrew Frobig, Cass County jail administrator. “I’m very pleased that we’re increasing the attention that we’ve been paying to it.”
With more people suffering.
McConkey warns, “One of our addiction counselors, in I would say about a six month period, half of the people she had half of her patients that were diagnosed with an opiate addiction passed away.”
How do you reach people like Scott Smith? People trapped by a need to abuse. Smith tried rehab and failed, twice.
He admits, “I didn’t accept the fact that I was done using.”
Efforts in the region are growing. Talks that started a year ago have evolved into a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Addiction.
McConkey says, That was like the first step to really engage the community.
A second step: An ad campaign.
Prairie St. John’s partnered with Fargo Police and the Cass County Sheriff to produce this PSA targeted at parents.
McConkey explains, “What we hear over and over and over again is parents saying ‘We had no idea. We didn’t see the signs. We trusted him. We trusted her.'”
They want to reach families before addiction can latch on to their kids.
Law enforcement is also trying to reach people who are already addicted, because confusion about the law can prove fatal.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” admits Capt. Frobig, “but we certainly need to increase our efforts in getting the educational component out there as to what the actual laws say.”
A life could have been saved just this year if we could reach people suffering from addiction. In February, a woman died of an overdose after being abandoned outside a local medical center. What addicts may not know is, if a friend or loved one is overdosing, you can get them help without incriminating yourself.
Capt. Frobig explains, “The law allows for a certain number of people to be immune from prosecution for possession charges if they call for help.”
But simply stating the message isn’t good enough. Smith says the person receiving the message has to accept it.
He explains, “You have to reach a point where you have nowhere else to go but get help.”
Sometimes that point is behind jail bars.
“We can serve as an intervention point,” says Capt. Frobig.
The Cass County Jail started the F5 program last year. Recovered addicts help guide drug users in jail, helping with everything from sobriety to housing to finding a job.
Capt. Frobig explains, “They’ve been there and they can garner a lot more trust.”
That helps. But it doesn’t have to get that far.
Scott Smith says his salvation can come in the form of a single phone call from a friend, explaining, “She called me a like two in the morning; she calls, and said ‘I’m worried about you before you die’.”
That friend, Sheri Steckler, explains why she called. She says, “It’s just hard to see somebody deteriorate or go down that road to the point where you’re afraid they’re going to die.”
Nine years later, Steckler’s friend is clean, and sharing his story. He says his sobriety hinged on acting after that phone call.
“Go in that day”, Smith warns. “Don’t wait, because the next opportunity could be years away.”
Even if you think messages from hospitals, officers and friends and family are falling on deaf ears, Smith wants to tell you they could still save an addict’s life.
“Each time I went to treatment, a seed was planted,” he says. “There is help. People do recover. That’s the important thing, those treatments weren’t really wasted. They didn’t stick, but they weren’t wasted.”
Smith says you never know what will reach someone. Even if the opioid problem gets worse before it gets better, he says the key is to keep trying.
Prairie St. John’s is also reaching out to teens directly through social media trying to dissuade drug use.
As much as we’re doing though, Capt. Frobig says we’re not doing nearly enough, and that we need to focus more on the future, and stop playing catch-up with fighting opioids.