Op-Ed: The Fight Against Drug Addiction

The Fight Against Drug Addiction
by Chris Keto
6 June 2016

Molly went to high school in the suburbs. She was enrolled to attend UW LaCrosse in the Fall. She lived in Franklin with her parents and was active in sports. But Molly didn’t feel she was popular, and when she fell in with the wrong crowd, it changed her life. Starting with alcohol and some drug sampling, her new boyfriend convinced her to try heroin. For the next four years, Molly battled addiction. She lost her job. She lost her college placement. She and the bad news boyfriend had a child, and the Family Protective Services took the child away. Molly was lucky. She battled hard and found treatment that would bring her back. Her courageous attempt was life-saving, literally. Molly is not her real name, but the story is true and it is a too common tale.

Dan, a white-collar worker, lived in Waukesha with his wife and children. Following an accident, Dan took Opioid medication for pain and became addicted. One night, impaired Dan took too many pills and died of an accidental overdose, leaving his family to sort out how this could happen. Dan is not his real name, but the story is true and also a too common tale.

We’re at war on many fronts, such as the war on cancer, the war on heart disease, the war on diabetes, etc. But the war on drugs should be captivating us in a whole new way. Like an epidemic, it is impacting people from adolescents to geriatrics. It pounces on them when they are most vulnerable. And it is gaining ground, nationwide, in every community from slums to the country club set, among all zip codes. North to south, east to west, in-town, out-of-town, cities, suburbs and farms. In a report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. As a consequence, the rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013.” That number continues to climb. Heroin is an easy next step. It’s cheap and it’s prevalent and it masks physical and emotional pain like nothing else. It works quickly. And with one use, a vulnerable kid trying to navigate a difficult existence is hooked. Or a mature patient fighting pain is unable to stop taking the drug, even when the doctor will no longer write the prescription. A person struggling with addiction may ultimately turn to stealing and other crimes, if necessary, to keep the fix coming. Or, the user may overdose and die. Either are likely outcomes without successful intervention.

We can point to so much success among some of the other wars, hard fought over time with all hands on deck and ample resources to make a difference. We now cure cancer every day according to oncologists. Not every type of cancer, of course, but we’ve made great strides. We can point to many improvements for the treatment of heart disease and diabetes along with many other illnesses that once held dire prognosis just a few years ago. It took our expectations and our money to do the job. But that was the easy part.

What progress have we made as a community in our war against drug addiction? Not as much. You’ve heard the question, how do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. Unlike cancer deaths, deaths from addiction don’t always get the attention or the response they deserve, even though alcohol and drug addiction touches three out of four people in the United States. Some folks may still believe that those deaths are others’ problems. The response may be one of sympathy, but nothing more.

In fact, we now know that overdoses from prescription pain relievers are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Rising to the challenge, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued new prescribing guidelines in 2016 to primary care clinicians prescribing opioids for chronic pain. The CDC recommended these when treating adult patients with chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care. It’s certainly a start. Reducing the availability of opioids is part of the prevention effort.

Our legislators are working too in a bipartisan attempt to strengthen laws that will address our state’s prescription opioid epidemic. The Heroin Opioid Prevention and Education bill (HOPE) recently signed into law allocates $2 million to Wisconsin’s Treatment and Diversion (TAD) programs. The statement released from Representative John Nygren, 89th Assembly District explains “Often times, people who struggle with addiction are thrown in jail or sentenced to prison without access to the appropriate treatment opportunities. While people addicted to opioids may detox while inside the prison system, they frequently haven’t gotten the mental health treatment needed to fight their addiction. TAD programs help to bridge that gap by offering helpful treatment opportunities in lieu of incarceration. These programs not only keep more nonviolent, drug-related offenders out of prison, but they’re proven to work to increase instances of recovery and reduce recidivism.” The HOPE Agenda consists of 17 laws approved unanimously by both Houses of the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Walker.

Disposing of prescription pain killers in a responsible manner is another part of what we all can do to assist the prevention effort. To get them out of our homes eliminates the chance of teenagers experimenting with drugs finding them. Flushing only puts them in our water system. There is a website where one can find a location close-by where medications may be disposed of safely. Visit here for more information.

Joe Muchka, Director of the Waukesha County Addiction Resource Council, (ARC) focuses on education and prevention. ARC, a 501c3, is a strong partner with the Waukesha County Health & Human Services Department as well as other community agencies, non-profits and private foundations. In essence, they provide assessments and referrals to folks who find themselves in the hospitals, the courts, the jails, or on the streets. Joe’s team cares deeply about these victims of alcohol, heroin and other opioids. A large part of the team’s objective is prevention. Working diligently with underage drinkers, meeting with patients at the Women’s Center, Hope Center or the Hebron House, to name a few, they counsel, inform and help people to better outcomes. The Council is an affiliate of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Addiction. Joe is impressed with what individuals and communities are accomplishing to turn this tide. He says, “Families themselves will drive the solutions, like “OPEN,” Oconomowoc Parent Education Network, or “Your Choice,” a non-profit 501c3 offering drug and alcohol awareness programs founded by a local family who knows first-hand about addiction and its consequences. We need legislators’ continued help to keep programs funded in areas of mental health, substance abuse and aging. This epidemic is at the forefront of Waukesha’s Heroin and Illicit Drug Task Force, including schools, law enforcement, hospitals and public health, along with Wisconsin’s Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, “AODA” treatment centers.

Kristine Klenz, Supervisor of the Waukesha County Deputy Medical Examiners, sees the sad end from addiction too often. She says “this is a much needed message, that must be shared to do more important work.” The truth is it really is everyone’s problem. Perhaps, it takes a village to cure a village.

I recently attended a fund-raising event for Meta House, a nationally recognized treatment program in Milwaukee. Meta House has 35 beds for women and 15 for their children in its residential program. Their clients are referred to them by Milwaukee County and some of the surrounding counties. But Meta House is just one program. There is a waiting list because there simply aren’t enough resources to largely expand their program to accommodate all the women who want help. It must be like being on the waiting list for the serum that will save your life. If it’s your child, does the “waiting list” sound like a “best” option to you?

The speaker at that Meta House event, Dr. Magda Peck, shared a very alarming statistic. She said, “for the first time ever in recorded history, The Center for Disease Control reported that the life expectancy of white women was slightly less than that of their mothers.” Say that again, you say? How is that possible? The report did not speculate on what caused the decline, but the authors note that the findings are an aberration from the overall trend toward longer life expectancy that every generation has come to expect. Among the suspected contributing factors are suicide, drug and alcohol abuse. To hear their stories and to hear their success through Meta House, literally makes one weep. To hear of those that never get to Meta House, found dead throughout the state also makes one weep. In 2014, overdose deaths in the United States hit record numbers.

Meta House operates with the support of government and private foundation grants and donations. The length of stay has a direct correlation to the client outcome. These are kids and middle agers that often are no longer benefiting from insurance; they’ve lost their jobs, their cars, their homes, and often their families. Those who are admitted to Meta House are received regardless of their ability to pay. Meta House has recently opened Shorewood House, an eight bed residential private pay program in Shorewood.

Dr. Peck ended her talk at the Meta House Fundraising Event by asking for everyone to heed the call, feel the need to be involved, and join the war. It was a call to action.

For more information about Meta House or Shorewood House, visit their respective websites – Meta House and Shorewood House – or, to learn more about the Council on Drug Addiction, visit www.addictionresourcecouncilwaukeshawi.org.

While all the progress was made fighting other killer diseases, heroin and opioids moved in and took center stage, to become the epidemic among young and middle age people that it is today.

All wars are likely won with hope and grit and banding together to fight and take what is ours. But we have too few of the very best treatment facilities that succeed at reclaiming lives. We have too little recognition that this is not a “blame” thing, but rather a disease than can overtake anyone at any time.

We can do this. We must all do what we can. Volunteer, donate, and spread awareness to get these drugs off our streets and out of our kids. There is hope.