The Centre County community has all the pieces to solve the heroin epidemic puzzle, it just needs to put those pieces together.
In the first of three planned panel discussions, members of the state legislature, county medical community, recovery community and local law enforcement spoke about the burgeoning opioid problem facing the county to a standing-room only crowd Tuesday at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
The discussion highlighted the work of the Centre County HOPE Initiative — Heroin Opiate Prevention Education — a group made up of local organizations and community members working to eliminate substance abuse, drug overdoses and drug overdose deaths in the county.
As County Commissioner Steve Dershem pointed out at the discussion opening, the first panel would focus on building awareness, saying that many of the people in the room had been touched by addiction in some way.
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“We have to get the word out to parents and friends that we have an issue that needs addressed,” Dershem said.
Centre County Judge Pamela A. Ruest said the courts are all too familiar with the devastation heroin can cause. The county is in the process of creating a drug court, similar to the DUI court that has proven successful in reducing recidivism, in order to better address the issue and “come up with some answers.”
Taking questions from the crowd, the panel of six, moderated by Penn State Evidence-Based Prevention and Intervention Support Center Managing Director Stephanie Bradley, spoke on subjects ranging from the definition of addiction to the stigma of addiction to mental health.
MNMC Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Kassandra Botti said addiction to heroin or opiates has been proven to be an addiction and not a lifestyle choice — a belief that continues to circulate. This lifestyle belief helps fuel the stigma of addiction, preventing many from seeking help for fear of judgment.
County Drug and Alcohol Services Assistant Director Cathy Arbogast echoed this, saying that when a person abuses a substance, it works in the same areas of the brain where base activities like breathing and eating are. The addiction takes over so much of the brain that it becomes difficult to make other choices.
Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs communications Director Jason Snyder, himself a recovering addict who lost both his brothers to their own addictions, said peer-to-peer testimonial is the best way to overcome the stigma of addiction. Addiction affects everyone, he said, and the mission is to step forward.
“Most people think addiction is all about other people,” he said. “We’ve been given a great platform to tell our story.”
Addressing myths surrounding heroin, Crossroads Counseling recovery specialist Katie Hugo — herself a recovered addict — said people have to stop thinking that addiction or an addict looks a certain way. She said she’s helped treat everyone from teens to professional-aged adults.
“They say, ‘People can’t believe I do heroin,’ ” she said. “Just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with addiction.”
State College police Officer Adam Salyards dispelled the notion that if the police receive a tip about someone dealing or taking heroin, that the person will be arrested immediately. Police must establish evidence before an arrest, and will work with detectives or the county drug task force before approaching someone with charges, he said.
Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said the issue must be looked at as a health issue and not just a crime issue.
“In society, if you have heart pains, you go to the hospital and they don’t send you home,” he said. “But when it comes to addiction problems, they treat you and send you out.
“We have to look at the underlying issue — why do people keep doing this?” he said.
The panel also touched on the use of naloxone — also called Narcan — and its use in battling overdoses. It counters the opioid, Botti said, stopping the effects of the drugs, and is carried by police, EMS and is readily available to residents who seek it through most drug stores.
Salyards said he personally administered a dose of naloxone to an individual about two weeks ago, saving the person’s life.
“It’s a good collaboration between law enforcement and health care,” he said.
County Commissioners provided closing comments, noting that the panel discussion is a great first step but the epidemic will only slow if everyone participates. A second panel discussion focusing on treatment and recovery is slated for September.
“We as a community have all the pieces to make extraordinary progress on this issue,” Commissioner Michael Pipe said. “This is a huge first step in the right direction to talking about it in an open way and ultimately have a real change occur.”