By Miles Maguire
- Extended insurance to cover treatment.
- New ways to talk about addiction.
Oshkosh residents battling the opioid epidemic say these are some of the steps that can be taken to address the growing problem.
But to make real progress, “we need to have a seismic cultural shift in how we think about addiction issues.”
Those are the words of UW Oshkosh Police Chief Kurt Liebold, who is a member of the Winnebago County Overdose Death Review Team and who participated Wednesday in a roundtable sponsored by the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research from the school.
Other panelists were Allyson Ford, a nurse practitioner at Aurora Health Care; Trevor Fenrich, executive director of Solutions Recovery; and Stephanie Gyldenvand, community health strategist with the Winnebago County Health Department.
Jennifer Skolaski, who facilitates the county’s overdose review efforts, served as moderator. She started the evening by citing statistics that show local overdose deaths are at record highs, nearly doubling from 20 in 2019 to 37 the following year.
Final toxicology testing has not yet been completed, but the Winnebago County coroner expects the 2021 toll to be over 40, Skolaski said.
The county had managed to reduce overdose deaths from a previous high of 34 in 2017, but then the pandemic hit, both increasing anxiety levels among vulnerable populations and making it harder for them to seek treatment. a treatment.
“We weren’t considered essential,” said Fenrich, whose organization runs a community center and provides sober living options. “The pandemic has really hit the recovery community.”
He said Solutions tries to reach customers virtually and relies heavily on phone and email contact. “But we’ve seen a lot of people talking about isolation or having a lot more trouble keeping in touch with people.”
Isolation is especially a problem for people who are just beginning to move away from substance use. “At the start of the recovery, the social connection is huge,” Fenrich said, “and some of that is lost in the digital world.”
Despite these challenges, “we’ve done amazing things as a community,” Skolaski said.
Using drugs to treat addiction has been successful, even though the approach is sometimes seen as replacing one addictive substance with another, Ford said.
“Numerous studies have shown that people who follow drug treatment programs remain committed to treatment. Their employment rates are higher. their HIV and [hepatitis] C levels are lower. There are better outcomes for moms,” she said. “It saves lives.”
Gyldenvand pointed to a series of steps the county health department is taking to combat addiction, including better data analysis and wider distribution of Narcan through partner agencies such as the County Fire Department. ‘Oshkosh and UW Oshkosh.
She said one of the most important steps was to listen more carefully to people struggling with addiction to understand their situation. These discussions “can be used to focus policy decisions” as well as connect people in recovery with the wider community.
Having conversations across the community, she said, is an important part of improving the addictions response. “There’s this problem we have around some of our policies, including funding, where it’s so siloed that we can’t really meet the needs of our community,” Gyldenvand said.
Another issue she says needs to be addressed is insurance, which sometimes cuts off payments for hospital care before a person is ready to return to their normal lifestyle.
“Why can’t we just get people the help they need? Fenrich asked. “Because they literally die on the streets or in Kwik-Trip toilets or wherever,” he said.
“We just don’t have access to the treatment.”
Fenrich said many people with substance use disorders face long waiting lists and don’t have good options for where to go.
The Day by Day Warming Shelter ‘is a great resource’ for people struggling with addiction, ‘but it’s not necessarily a place to go to get sober’ because it’s not designed to provide the support needed .
“What I would like to see change is to be able to reduce the stigma around addiction,” Ford said. She said replacing terms like “junkie” or “addict” with phrases based on a medical diagnosis would help. An alcoholic, she said, might instead be considered someone with an alcohol use disorder.
“When we use different words, it changes the way we think,” she said. “It’s much easier to think of an act of compassion for someone who is suffering from a medical illness than for someone you judge to have a moral flaw.”
Other suggestions for improving community response to opioids include disseminating information more widely about available resources, particularly for families of drug addicts, and finding ways to make it easier to navigate the support system. recovery.
Leibold said the community needs to come together to solve the opioid problem. “If we all have the same goal and work towards it, it’s amazing what we can accomplish in a short time.”
“Substance use is personal and affects all of us, regardless of our background or what industry we come from,” Sokalski said after the forum, which drew about 75 attendees in person and online. “It will take an entire community to bring about change and, in turn, save lives.”
“The Whitburn Center is dedicated to bringing people and ideas together to find solutions to the most pressing issues facing our state and our community,” said Mike Ford, a UWO professor who directs the center. He said “panelists highlighted concrete ways to de-stigmatize addiction and ultimately make progress on the issue.”