Taking aim at substance abuse requires a new mindset, if efforts are to succeed, speakers said at the fifth annual Substance Abuse Prevention Conference on April 29.
The biggest crisis hitting Florida today is the heroin and opioid epidemic, but the issue isn’t treated that way, said Mark Fontaine, executive director of Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
“We have 13 cases of Zika virus and we write all about the 13 cases of Zika virus.
“We have people dying every day in this state from heroin and from other drugs — we have more deaths in Florida than from auto accidents or from firearms, from addiction. That is not on the front page every day.
“In the city of Delray, there were 163 overdoses from January through the end of March,” Fontaine added. “We need a higher profile around this issue.”
His remarks came during a panel discussion at a conference that drew about 400 people to the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. The conference was presented by BayCare Behavioral Health and the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP).
The panel was just one of many ways that conference-goers could learn more about substance abuse issues and ways to tackle the problem. There were vendors there and numerous breakout sessions during the afternoon.
During the panel discussion, Fontaine said it’s not enough to merely focus attention on the problem of substance abuse, there’s also a need to shift society’s attitude about addressing it.
“This is a health condition. This is not a criminal justice condition. People have drug problems and they are addicted to drugs. We need to change the conversation to this being a condition that needs help, it needs assistance, it needs information, we need to make treatment available,” Fontaine said.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco characterized the issue as a community problem, requiring a united response.
“Our jail is probably the largest hospital in the county because we’re dealing with so much addiction,” Nocco said.
“Our role is to break up the criminal enterprise. But law enforcement alone cannot win the war on drugs,” he said.
People with substance abuse will find a way to fuel their addiction, he said. “That’s a mental health issue. That’s a healthcare issue.”
Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the issue hits close to home because she has a relative who has struggled. She said the county has taken aim at drug houses, through the county’s code enforcement efforts.
Michael J. Napier, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County, said a more coordinated approach is needed, tied to specific goals.
“We’re really at a point where we need to be able to do an assessment of — what is the status of Pasco County?” Napier said.
He suggests that it’s time to “put a stake in the ground, set some measures and then hold ourselves each accountable that we accomplish that measure.
“It isn’t always about dollars. It’s about organizations and aligning resources,” Napier said.
Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning agreed with both Nocco and Napier.
““It is a community problem. We are in this together. We have to get it fixed together,” Browning said. “We need to have a coordinated effort. We need to have a plan. We need to be committed to it.”
The substance abuse problem is widespread, Browning said. “We deal with affluent families and we deal with families in poverty. What I find is that substance abuse issues cut across all socioeconomics.”
It’s a problem that can affect any family, agreed Kelly Mothershead, owner of A Focus on Fitness, based in Wesley Chapel.
“I’m actually a parent of an only child who died from a prescription drug overdose five years ago. It was devastating,” Mothershead said. “None of us thinks our child will be a prescription drug addict.”
Her son was in culinary school and was injured at work. He was prescribed Oxycontin, and it snowballed from there. He went through rehab, was injured at work again, and once again received a prescription for Oxycontin – despite Motherhead’s objections. He died of an overdose three days later.
She decided to get involved.
“We need to talk about it. We don’t talk about drug addiction because there’s a stigma attached to it. We don’t want anyone to know that our child is addicted to drugs. We don’t want anyone to know that there’s someone in our family that’s a recovering addict,” Mothershead said.
That has to change, she added.
“It’s a disease and we need to come together to fix it.
“We have to educate ourselves, our businesses, our communities — not just our kids,” Mothershead said. She suggests delivering some of this education in the work place, to give working parents access to the information.
Involvement is exactly what’s needed, said Lt. Commander Michael Muni, who served on President Barack Obama’s National Heroin Task Force and was one of the event’s keynote speakers.
It’s difficult work, Muni said.
“There’s not very much recognition for doing this work. There is no fame. There is no fortune in this work,” he said.
But it’s essential to have goals, in order to make progress, he said.
He encouraged conference-goers to be inspired and to step up their efforts.
“The time will never be right. The place will never be right. The situation will never be right. You have to make the opportunity. You have to make the conscious decision that you want to do something great.
“Greatness is a lot of small things, done well. And, it’s done at a local level,” Muni said.
Published on May 5, 2016