There has been a dramatic increase in opioid-related fatalities in the United States in recent years and Watertown in eastern Massachusetts is no exception.
Watertown (pop. 32,000) had to register 47 overdoses so far in 2015, up from the 26 total for the year before. Out of the 47, ten were fatal overdoses, says Watertown Police Lieutenant Dan Unsworth.
Clearly, the situation has reached a crisis point and Watertown created an Opioid Action Plan with an emphasis on reframing addiction as a preventable, treatable disease. On Tuesday, the town council adopted a resolution to support ‘Erase the Stigma - a Week of Awareness and Education for All Ages’ with a main event at the local high school on October 21.
“The aim is to raise awareness and change the attitude about substance abuse,” says Town Councilor Tony Palomba. “We should not inhibit people from seeking treatment.”
A point emphasized by addiction specialist Laura Kehoe before the town council as well. “23 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD) but only 10 percent seek treatment - and stigma is the top reason for not seeking treatment,” explains Dr. Kehoe.
Palomba agrees: “We need to move away from the idea that SUDs are somehow based on moral failure, instead it should be seen as a disease, that requires treatment.”
‘Erase the Stigma’ week will kick off with discussions about opiate addiction at houses of worship, there will be ‘Learn to Cope’ talks for families of drug users at the Watertown Library, and a viewing of the short movie ‘If Only’ at Watertown High School.
The 36-minute film was produced earlier this year in Tewksbury, Massachusetts by James Wahlberg, a brother of Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg. It illustrates the dangers of drug use by focusing on a high school student (played by James Wahlberg’s son Jeffrey) who experiments with pills and ends up in rehab. While he’s in recovery, his buddy dies of an overdose at home.
The film ends with a haunting six-minute gallery of local families who lost loved ones to addiction. Most of them were younger than 30 years old.
Dr. Kehoe hopes the film will help families understand that “open and honest communication about the dangers of drug and alcohol use with their kids does decrease the likelihood their kids will use drugs and increases their chances that their kids will come to them with concerns or problems.”
To help protect people in the community from the dangers of drug addiction, the Watertown Police Department is now also joining P.A.A.R.I., the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative.
“We are inspired by the efforts of the Gloucester Police Department, the Arlington Police Department and the other P.A.A.R.I. agencies,” says Watertown Police Chief Ray Dupuis.
The approach of Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello has been widely praised as an innovative method to tackle the epidemic. The program, launched in June, offers users the possibility to turn in drugs and paraphernalia without fear of arrest and it’s beginning to show results.
Chief clinical officer of Recovery Centers of America Deni Carise applauds both Watertown and Gloucester for their work in treating the illness of addiction and helping to erase the stigma of the disease. “At a time when so many council members in other towns are turning a blind eye to this problem because they don't want treatment programs in their community, Watertown and Gloucester really stand out in their commitment to be part of the solution!”
Watertown councilor Tony Palomba agrees: “The efforts in Gloucester are one of the few bright lights in all of this, a great way to think outside the box,” he says.
Hopefully, the Gloucester method and ‘Erase the Stigma’ week will have a positive impact in Watertown.