Seminar spotlights Pasco’s opioid epidemic, solutions

When it comes to tackling the opioid crisis in Pasco County, the community needs all hands on deck.

That’s according to Monica Rousseau, coordinator for the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP).

Rousseau was one of ASAP’s group of speakers for an opioid crisis seminar at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel. The Sept. 18 event was part of the state college’s ongoing Community Awareness Series, open to the public, students, faculty and staff.

Monica Rousseau is coordinator for the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP). She discussed the scope of the opioid crisis in Pasco County and some solutions for tackling the issue. (Kevin Weiss)

Rousseau, who’s worked for ASAP since 2014, underscored the scope of substance abuse locally.

Among Florida’s 67 counties, Pasco currently ranks fifth in the rate of substance abuse related overdose deaths, averaging 25 deaths per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control Wonder Data and County Health Rankings provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In 2017, the county ranked fourth in the state, but averaged fewer deaths, about 22 per 100,000.

Manatee County ranks first in the state in 2018, with 38 deaths per 100,000.

The figures, Rousseau explained, indicate other counties are getting worse in the fight against opioids, while Pasco remains about the same.

“We’re not getting better. We’re just kind of starting to press pause in Pasco County, whereas other counties are seeing a lot more deaths,” Rousseau said.

Multiple solutions needed
Rousseau attributes Pasco’s high ranking, in part, to its ‘pill mill’ epidemic from the early part of the decade.

“We’ve cut down on all the pill mills, but people with addiction are still dealing with it,” Rousseau said. “They cycle through treatment. It takes a few times for it to stick, but we just have a population that still is healing from that.”

In reducing substance abuse, Rousseau suggested the county needs to take a more comprehensive approach, focusing on the supply, demand and treatment sides of the issue, and “looking at this from a community perspective.”

Getting to the root cause of substance abuse is another task — understanding that addiction oftentimes is “an evolving disease of despair” driven by emotional suffering, as well as physical suffering, Rousseau said.

Helping those people get counseling may be one solution to fight the crisis, she said.

“We talk about the pain aspect until we’re blue in the face,” she said. What’s needed are conversations about how that person has post-traumatic stress disorder, or severe childhood trauma, or lost his job or his wife just left, Rousseau said.

Another speaker, New Port Richey’s Rachel Starostin, shared her personal story about battling opioid addiction.

She said she became a drug addict after she was in a car accident on U.S. 19 caused by a drunk driver.

A trauma nurse for Bayfront, Starostin was forced to give up her career because of ongoing physical problems related to the crash.

Aside from physical injuries, Starostin, too, had pent up emotional scars.

Her mother died when she was 16. Her father, a drug addict, was absent throughout her life.

Years later, Starostin came home to find her husband, who had died by suicide.

“I felt really bad on the inside. Everybody in my life that I really loved was gone,” she said.

Starsotin previously used work as a coping mechanism, but once her livelihood was taken away, she began using pain medication to fill the void.

Dependency affects all kinds of people
It began innocently. She took opiates before physical therapy sessions to manage legitimate feelings of pain and discomfort.

Over time, though, she progressively took more and more.

The medications removed her inhibitions.

“The reaction I had from it was not normal. All those bad feelings of, ‘I’m worthless. My life is over,’ they all went away,” she said.

Starostin said she was “completely controlled by opiates”— for more than 10 years.

While in jail, facing 25 years for drug trafficking, Starostin entered a 12-step recovery program.

She’s been clean for almost three years.

“I was just determined that I didn’t want to die,” she said, noting she came close to death several times.

“It was time to do something different. Nothing changes if nothing changes, and that hit me and I was like, ‘Ok, I need to change.’”

Today, Starostin is a member of ASAP’s recovery committee, which provides support for people affected by substance use disorders.

She uses her story to motivate others and to help them find their purpose in life.

Her advice to addicts: “No matter how many times you fall, you keep getting back up. It took me 20 times. I went through detox and stuff like that. No matter how far down the scale you’ve gone, you really can do it. You just have to keep it at.”

Starostin and Rousseau agreed there needs to be continual awareness regarding the negative stigma and negative perceptions associated with substance abuse and addiction.

“One of the No.1 reasons people don’t seek treatment is because of the stigma,” Rousseau said. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about their opioid issues or their drug issues, so they don’t know where to go.”

ASAP speakers also said more opportunities are needed to assist people in recovery to reintegrate back into society. There needs to be greater access to jobs, housing, health care and so on, they said.

They also pointed out that it can be especially difficult for those that have a criminal record for drug-related offenses, even after they’ve become clean.

ASAP recovery committee co-chair Kellie Walker, who also spoke during the seminar, put it this way: “There’s lot of things people in recovery need other than just getting sober and taking the substance away.

“What happens when somebody gets sober and they can’t find a job? They’re going to likely go back to some of those behaviors,” Walker said.

Published September 26, 2018

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