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The Newtown Prevention Council conducted a community forum about Connecticut’s opioid crisis on Wednesday, October 5, at the Edmond Town Hall.
The meeting gave the public the opportunity to openly discuss their questions and concerns while talking with a panel of experts in the field, including addiction specialists, law enforcement, those in health care, paramedics, community partners, and those in recovery. Educational pamphlets, posters, and contact information for local services were also available in the lobby of Edmond Town Hall.
First Selectman Pat Llodra was the first speaker of the night and said, “There is no denying that we are in the grip of a public health crisis … that shows no sign of abating; a crisis which generates great disruption and emotional pain for families and loved ones.”
She reported that Newtown had experienced 13 overdose events from 2010 to 2014 and that the trend is accelerating.
“The Prevention Council has put together this program to educate you, to support you, and to encourage you in honest and meaningful discussion about a problem in our community,” said Ms Llodra.
Donna Culbert, regional health director and tri-chair of the Newtown Prevention Council, emphasized that opioid deaths are preventable. She added, “Those statistics are numbers, and I can’t help but come back to the fact that those numbers are people. They’re our people; they are our sons and daughters, husband and wives, family members, friends, neighbors, they are our community.”
On the panel was Allan Griffin, who has been sober from drugs and alcohol since March 1, 2011. He shared his personal story of addiction with the group.
“From the moment I started drinking, I drank to oblivion,” Mr Griffin said. “It was to feel different than I had felt my whole life. I recall sleeping in a closet that [first] night, blacked out, waking up the next day and saying, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
His decision to remedy his feelings with alcohol intensified when his grandfather died. Not knowing how to ask for help, he continued to find refuge in drinking. Soon it turned to using marijuana and progressed to opiates. When prescription medication became too expensive, he was exposed to heroin as it was much cheaper.
“My twenties are pretty much a haze. I spent it in detoxes, outpatient programs, inpatient residential programs, police stations, courthouses, and I caused every single person around me a ton of pain,” Mr Griffin said.
In 2010, he had been on probation for five years, and he was given the option of going to jail or treatment. After strongly considering prison as the better option, he decided to go to treatment. There he reached out to a higher power, and his thinking changed. He started to find the peace that he had always been looking for. After treatment, he moved to a sober house, surrounded himself with healthy people, restored relationships with his family, and gained employment.
“Recovery has given me a beautiful wife, a home, and an incredible 15-month-old daughter that never has to see me drink or use drugs. I am incredibly grateful for that,” Mr Griffin concluded.
Also on the panel was Matthew Cincogrono, who shares similarities with Mr Griffin as he too grew up in Middlebury and has struggled with addiction. He is now three-and-a-half years sober and works for a collection of addiction treatment centers.
Mr Cincogrono started off his talk by asking members of the crowd to raise their hand if their family has been touched by addiction or substance abuse in some way. Nearly every person’s hands went up.
He emphasized that growing up he had a normal childhood, great family, was educated, did well in swimming, and ultimately lived a “charmed life.” It was in high school that he was first introduced to social drinking and smoking joints. Later he was exposed to pain pills after an injury and became dependent to them.
“One of the important things I like to express is addiction has become such a stigma,” said Mr Cincogrono. The face of addiction now looks like people who are college educated, who grew up in nice communities, and who have families who care — people like him, he said.
Panel member Mike Collins, chief of the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, further explained there should no longer be the stereotype of addicts. People are getting pain pills prescribed by their doctors, they are a variety of ages, and many are “functional addicts.”
Mr Collins also touched upon how his organization has trained all the town’s first responders in nasally administering Narcan (or Naloxone) in the case of respiratory distress. “What [Narcan] does is basically turns off the body’s ability to take that opioid into the bloodstream and use it,” he said.
Also offering a medical perspective on the opioid crisis was Dr Bill Begg, who has worked at Danbury Hospital the last 25 years.
“This public health issue has spiraled out of control. The data is clear that in our state the percentage of deaths from opioid overdose has increased exponentially in the last five years,” Dr Begg said, including that narcotic overdoses have surpassed gun and motor vehicle deaths. He also stressed the importance of family getting their loved ones help the first time they identify there is opioid abuse.
Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon shared important resources with the audience. She explained that her group is in many ways a “safety net provider” for those uninsured, underinsured, or on Medicaid. It also provides a range of services and supports like detox, long-term residential services, medication assisted treatment, etc.
She encouraged people to call the DMHAS’s Walk-In Assessment Center, 800-563-4086, as a source. Additional informational sources can be found online at ct.gov/dmhas/opioidresources.
Newtown Police Chief Jim Viadero has been a police officer for 31 years. He started in Bridgeport and his mission was to eradicate “the war on drugs.” He did not realize when he followed his career to suburban towns like Middlebury and Newtown that he would still see the same drug abuse.
“It’s there. It’s real,” said Chief Viadero. “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”
Newtown Parent Connection Founder Dorrie Carolan shared her powerful and emotional story about losing her son, Brian, to a prescription drug overdose in 1999, when he was just 28 years old.
“It is my wish that Brian’s life was not lived in vain. It is my hope that we can heal the broken hearts, finding hope and comfort in the darkness of addiction. It is my promise that through the Newtown Parent Connection we will continue to bring awareness and education to destigmatize the disease of addiction. Don’t let your guilt and shame get in the way of doing what is necessary for getting your loved one the help they need,” said Ms Carolan.
For more information on the Newtown Parent Connection, visit newtownparentconnection.org.
Q&A From Audience
During the Q&A portion of the event, the audience was given the opportunity to either ask questions directly or anonymously through index cards given to the panel.
One of the first questions asked was directed specifically to Mr Griffin and Mr Cincogrono. “What is the one, single most important task or action you feel is most important for prevention of this epidemic?”
Mr Griffin answered, “Speaking out openly and honestly and breaking through the stigma… Where there is breath there is hope.”
Mr Cincogrono’s response was about raising awareness that there is a problem and about understanding of all resources.
A question relayed from a card asked, Is drug addiction hereditary?
Dr Begg said, “It is either environmental or genetic, and everyone is on the spectrum and there is a component of both. So, if you have a genetic predisposition plus those environmental factors you are at a much higher risk.”
The inquiry that erupted in the most participation from the crowd and panel was, What can be done about the lack of treatment centers and their expense?
Ms Delphin-Rittmon explained, “We have the state system of care, that has some services that DMHAS provides, but also private providers that work with individuals who have private insurance… There is an Office of the Healthcare Advocate, which is part of the Connecticut Department of Insurance. That office can help people advocate for coverage.”
Mountainside, High Watch, Silver Hill are private facilities that Mr Cincogrono cited as great places from a clinical treatment perspective, but he understands that the insurance and financial aspects are difficult for the average person.
At the end of the forum, the panel members emphasized the Drug Drop Box Program in the Newtown Police Department’s lobby is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can clean out their medicine cabinets and bring any prescription drugs to properly dispose of them anonymously.