Editorial: Working slowly toward addiction services

Thursday’s forum on the opioid abuse crisis and the overdoses and deaths that occur illustrated again how the greater Westerly region is lacking in support services that many seem to feel only belong in cities, whether its public transportation, social services or mental health support.

One of the panelists Thursday was Dan Schuetz, a program director with CODAC Behavioral Healthcare, a Cranston-based agency that describes itself as “Rhode Island’s oldest and largest non-profit, outpatient provider of treatment for Opioid Use Disorder.”

He said 97 percent of the agency’s clients who are screened for opioid use test positive for fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin said to be 100 times more powerful than morphine and many times more powerful than heroin. Dealers add fentanyl to boost the strength of their “product,” but they hardly use lab technology to measure the amounts. The result too often is an overdose death, 15 in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area in 2016.

Schuetz said the agency provides services at six locations around the state, but none south of Wakefield, adding  he’s willing to learn what residents of the area need since there seems to be a desire to get help “but you don’t seem to have the resources.”

It’s doubtful such services will be cropping up soon, but perhaps more people are getting the message that the greater Westerly area does have its share of social problems. Certainly not on a scale found in cities, but to those families affected, that makes no difference. From the start of 2016 to the end 2017, the Westerly Ambulance Corps responded to 81 overdoses, including 15 deaths. During the same time period, the corps administered Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids, 131 times. Over those two years, Westerly Police responded to 71 overdoses, administered Narcan nine times and responded to eight overdose deaths.

Leaders of Westerly Hospital, through the affiliation with Yale New Haven Health, are considering adding services to address addiction and mental health needs, but nothing is confirmed and therefore nothing is going to happen anytime soon on that front.

The Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, which sponsored Thursday’s forum, seems to be gaining traction in at least raising awareness of the problems the region faces. With coordinator Sarah Hall in place after its own years-long rocky period, the volunteer board of the task force will hopefully keep the momentum going to support any real action toward addiction services in this region.

With police and ambulance workers talking, the task force coordinating and the hospital hanging out hope of services in the future — addiction isn’t going away — perhaps there is hope that, slowly, the greater Westerly region will start to provide more of the social and behavioral health services that are needed. 

Ken Richards III, the ambulance corps’ emergency medical services administrator, sounded a similarly hopeful tone at the end of Thursday’s forum.

“It’s great that we’re working together as a community with all of the services. I think we’re starting to get a good message out.”

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