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Islanders Join To Shape Strategy Against Rising Opioid Epidemic

Increased rates of substance abuse in geographically isolated, relatively small areas such as Martha's Vineyard is well documented by scientific research. Amid Massachusetts' escalating opioid abuse epidemic that continues with a spike in opiate overdose deaths (the state's estimated rate of 17.5 deaths per 100,000 residents is the highest ever), new statistical data from local physicians and law enforcement, as well as from state Executive Office of Health and Human Services leave little doubt that the heroin and prescription opiate crisis on the Vineyard is on the rise, destroying more families and claiming more lives. In such a small and isolated community, residents who see the scourge on a daily basis discuss its devastating effects - loss of human life and grieving families in particular.

On June 6th, Islanders of all stripes gathered at Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center to take a collective stand against the growing opiate epidemic on the Vineyard. Titled " Opiates, Addiction, and Our Community", the community forum was aimed at shaping a more effective actionable strategy and intensifying collaborative community efforts to combat this unprecedented public health crisis whose impact is far reaching. According to a recent survey of local opioid abuse treatment specialists conducted by the Dukes County Health Council, most stakeholders rate the resources currently available for treatment on the Island either unacceptable or poor. Resources on the Vineyard have been visibly overwhelmed by a surge in illicit and prescription opiate overdose deaths over the past two years, a pernicious trend that mirrors Massachusetts' and the nation's opioid pandemic.

A diverse panel of public service organizations, medical professionals, treatment and recovery specialists, activists, recovering addicts, clergy and law enforcement representatives joined forces for a community forum on Martha's Vineyard that laid the groundwork for a coordinated action response to the opioid crisis on the Island. Assistant school superintendent Richard Smith served as the moderator for the forum attended by roughly 250 community members. The event led off with three recovering addicts, affiliated with Narcotics Anonymous on the Vineyard, sharing their heart-wrenching stories of struggling with an opioid use disorder as well as their inspiring stories of finding healing and hope in long-term recovery from this insidious disease. Among them was a Martha's Vineyard resident who has been clean for 16 years and who emphasized that each of them represents " a lot of hope".

Several medical community representatives delved into the psychological and physiological aspects of the disease of opiate addiction. Catherine Dotolo, Director of Special Projects with Gosnold of Cape Cod, a substance abuse treatment facility, highlighted both the clinical nature of addiction and long-term nature of recovery, by showcasing brain scans of people suffering from this disease to illustrate its profound effects on the human brain, especially a younger one, as well as how the collateral damage to the brain can be reversed over time. Dotolo also said that areas of the human are hijacked by these drugs and willpower alone cannot overcome the brain changes; medication-assisted treatment coupled with counseling are required to gradually reverse these changes in the brain.

Jim Derick, the father of a recovering addict and president of Support for Addicts and Families by Empowerment (SAFE), a group of community officials and parents who serve as a support network for addicts and their families, expressed his concerns that the stigma of addiction is sadly still a cruel and unfair reality that prevents some from seeking help. Nevertheless, the SAFE Coalition that covers 6 towns in Worcester and Norfolk counties has accomplished many successful referrals for opioid use disorders, especially through a hotline and confidential drop-in treatment centers. The group has tied recovery coaches to an intervention team and every time an individual is administered Narcan, a SAFE volunteer or a police officer talks to them immediately about recovery options, sometimes even while they’re still in the emergency room.

Martin Tomassian Jr., president of the Dukes County Bar Association informed attendees of how to obtain a Section 35, the court order which involuntarily commits an opioid user to treatment. He stated the Massachusetts Bar Association has already established a telephone hotline 844-843-6221 that offers free legal advice for those considering Section 35. Amy Houghton, director of human resources with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services wrapped up the event with a pledge to turn the ideas proposed at this forum into action, prioritize next steps and set up work groups.


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