A shift in attitudes could go a long way toward reducing impacts from substance abuse, speakers said at the sixth annual Substance Abuse Prevention Conference held in Wesley Chapel.
Stigma is a huge issue, they said.
Until that changes, fewer people will seek treatment, and employment and housing challenges will remain for those in recovery from substance addictions, they explained.
A new mindset is also needed toward people who are in recovery, several speakers said.
Even when people have stopped misusing drugs or alcohol and are trying to reform their lives they often encounter roadblocks because of previous run-ins with the law, speakers said.
Those were among myriad issues discussed during the Sept. 21 conference at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.
The conference, which had the theme “Strengthening Our Communities: Opportunities for Action,” was presented by the Pasco Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) and BayCare Behavioral Health.
About 400 people were registered, including youths involved in prevention efforts, people at various stages of recovery, mental health and medical providers, elected officials, judges and members of law enforcement. Besides the speeches, the event included a panel discussion and breakout sessions.
The keynote speaker was Andy Duran, executive director of Linking Efforts Against Drugs (LEAD) and the SpeakUP! Prevention Coalition, based near Chicago.
He talked about the need to change the conversation, as it relates to the topic of the misuse of drugs and alcohol.
He suggests dropping labels commonly used to describe people with drug or alcohol issues.
“We use pejorative words, even in prevention we do this. We use words like ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ or ‘dirty’ … We’ve got to get those words out of the language.
“Someone has an addiction, they’re not an addict. Someone has an alcohol problem or struggles with alcoholism, they’re not an alcoholic.
“When we start to talk differently, we start to think differently. And, when we start to think differently, society then follows us and starts to think differently,” Duran said.
Society generally views substance abuse as a crime, a moral failing or a simple choice, Duran said. In reality, it’s a complex medical behavioral problem, he said.
The stigma attached to the problem reduces the likelihood that someone will ask for help, which increases the risk for overdose, Duran added.
Worst crisis in decades
Another speaker, Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association, offered an assessment of the current situation. He also addressed ongoing efforts to bring about change and the challenges ahead.
“I’ve been doing this work for 40 years. I have never seen a crisis as we’re facing in this state right now,” Fontaine said.
Opioid overuse is affecting every community in Florida, with opioids being the direct cause of 2,538 deaths across the state in 2015, he said. Statistics are not available for 2016 yet, but the number is expected to double, he said.
It’s not an isolated problem.
“This epidemic is affecting us all. It’s the most important thing that’s on the table in the state right now,” Fontaine said.
While efforts are underway to increase funding in the battle — and Gov. Rick Scott has declared it an emergency — the state lacks a comprehensive plan for tackling the problem, Fontaine said.
He pointed to gaps in service.
“In Florida, there are many people who come knocking on the door for treatment and treatment is not available to them,” Fontaine said.
And, while there’s a focus on the opioid crisis, that’s just one part of the substance abuse picture, speakers said.
“I can tell you that in the Pasco County Drug Court, we are seeing more methamphetamine than opioid cases,” said Judge Shawn Crane, who oversees that court. “That is a growing number. We see it all of the time. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s something for those practitioners and providers — just keep that on your radar. That is an important part of what we are facing in our court.”
And, while the opioid crisis is the focus of today, other problems persist, Duran said. “Alcohol still kills more people a year. Tobacco use still kills more people a year.”
In addition to the conference speakers, there was a panel discussion, moderated by Carley Boyette of Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend. It
took a look at the issues from the perspective of recovering addicts, social service providers, elected officials and law enforcement.
Cesar Rodriguez, who has had his share of battles with substance abuse, talked about the struggles that he encountered in finding work and housing, after he got sober.
“I stayed the course and I was able to find a job after a while, but by no means was that easy.
“When I made enough money and I was on my feet, the next obstacle was — you have to fill out these background checks to rent anywhere, and people don’t want convicted felons in their neighborhoods or in their HOAs (homeowners associations).
“Everything is, ‘Put your application online.’ You don’t get a chance to present yourself.
“It can break people. When you get told ‘No’ enough — ‘No you can’t have safe housing,’ ‘You can’t have an hourly wage job to keep your life moving forward,’ — it can send somebody back out,” he said.
Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore noted “substance abuse doesn’t discriminate …Every one of us has friends and neighbors that are going through this. Every one of us probably has a family member that has gone through this,” Moore said.
“As a community, we need to give people a chance,” Moore added.
Erica Smith, a licensed mental health counselor from BayCare Behavioral Health, said the road to recovery begins with meeting people where they’re at.
“It’s really about helping them to achieve behavior change,” she said.
“You get asked the question a lot of times: ‘How many times are you going to let this person come and use this service, or go to detox?’
The answer, she said, is “As many times as it takes.”
“We never shut the door,” Smith said.
Published Oct. 4, 2017