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By SARA ARTHURS
People struggling with addiction, and their loved ones, should know help is still available — and those who care for this population are striving to reduce the risk of overdoses.
Gary Bright, injury prevention coordinator at Hancock Public Health, said the health department wants to make sure people know naloxone is still available. Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a medication that reverses an opioid overdose. Bright said he hasn’t had as many requests for kits as usual since the pandemic started.
Anyone needing naloxone can call Bright at 567-250-5151. He’ll coordinate a time to drop off a kit, or will walk it out to a recipient curbside at the health department. Mail order is also an option, not through Hancock Public Health but through an organization called Harm Reduction Ohio.
Locally, kits are provided through Project DAWN and are free. Donations are accepted but not required.
Bright said if we can keep people alive, they can enter treatment when they are ready. But “people can’t recover if they’re not alive.” He said he knows people who have overdosed multiple times and are now in recovery and helping others.
Bright can get kits to family members who may be concerned about a loved one. He said he’d love to hear ideas from the community about how the health department can help people get access to naloxone, because “there could be things we haven’t thought of.”
Bright said the pandemic may present particular health dangers for those using drugs.
He encouraged people not to isolate, but to stay connected. But he said this is harder for people who are actively using drugs, most of whom have a history of trauma of some kind, and may have felt not “a part of things” even before the pandemic.
And he said that supplies of drugs — like other supplies — may be interrupted or not as reliable right now, which means people might be obtaining drugs that are more likely to be laced with more dangerous substances like fentanyl. Bright coordinates the county’s overdose fatality review team and said the majority of overdose deaths involve multiple drugs, often including fentanyl.
And he said another concern is that some of the withdrawal symptoms of opiates can mimic symptoms of COVID-19 — and people who are actively using drugs are not just at higher risk of contracting the virus, but of becoming more severely ill. Active drug users may not have a regular doctor or be connected to the health care system, so it may take them longer before they seek medical attention, Bright added.
Dr. Joshua Shuh oversees medication-assisted treatment in the community, which means he prescribes medications intended to give a controlled dose of an opiate while a patient is being weaned off of it.
Shuh also sees patients for psychiatric issues. He said about half of his patients come in with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s so prevalent,” he said, adding that the most common cause in the United States is childhood sexual abuse.
A person may have never dealt with these issues, then taking the drug makes them feel good so they take more. Shuh works to stabilize the patient so they are ready for counseling to address these other issues.
He said the way we learn as humans is through experiencing pleasure or pain. And drugs “hijack that system,” so that the individual seeks out more and more of their drug of choice to feel that pleasure.
Shuh, who sees patients in person, said he has gotten some new patients during the pandemic — some who have sought his care willingly, others who were referred after an overdose sent them to the emergency room.
He said isolation may increase depression or anxiety. Addiction is a “disease of isolation,” and getting past it requires intimacy, Shuh said. And, while online support group meetings may help, they can lack this intimacy compared to meeting in person, he said.
Social isolation “makes it very hard for my patients,” he said.
Precia Stuby, executive director of the Hancock County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, said March 2020 saw 81 calls to the crisis line, compared with 47 in March 2019. But Stuby noted that the numbers do vary from month to month: October 2019, for example, had 85 calls, while November had 59.
Stuby said when there is any kind of situation like this, or a natural disaster, the expectation is that mental health and addiction treatment needs will go up. Statewide, mental health and addiction services professionals are preparing for a surge, just as Findlay saw after its major flooding.
She said economic hardship and changes in routine can affect mental health, and some people may develop addiction as a coping mechanism. And, when the crisis is going on, “at the top of your list is getting through the day,” not seeking treatment. Local mental health professionals expect people to be seeking treatment later, as we get closer to a new normal.
Still, Stuby encouraged people to try to get help earlier rather than later: “Please don’t wait until it’s a crisis.”
She said addiction can be defined by “the absence of connection,” so people being forced into isolation may make recovery from addiction more fragile. Stuby encouraged people to keep up those connections electronically, but acknowledged that may not work for everyone.
She encouraged loved ones of those struggling with mental health and addiction issues to validate how the person feels. “Don’t tell people, ‘Don’t feel that way.'”
And Shuh encouraged loved ones of those struggling with addiction, “Don’t judge them. … They already feel judged enough.”
The local crisis line is 888-936-7116.