The opioid crisis is a nationwide issue that’s affected individuals in powerful and life altering ways, from chronic pain sufferers who can no longer get the medication they need, to stories of addiction, dependency and death. Allen Stewart is the Program Director at the New Season Harrisonburg Metro Treatment Center, working to educate individuals facing opioid problems. He spoke with WMRA’s Chris Boros.
This story was produced by WMRA's Sara Amin.
Allen Stewart: One of the things were seeing, really everywhere in the United States, but absolutely in Rockingham County, the Shenandoah Valley, and Harrisonburg; we’re seeing large numbers of folks going to emergency rooms with opiate overdoses and were seeing people dying. In America, we see that there’s about 115 people dying a day. Our personal clinic, the New Season Harrisonburg Treatment Center, we have 285 active patients right now and were growing by about 10 patients a month. So, I’ve had outreach from all number of community stakeholders. From the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department, from the Middle River Jail, everyone’s really sort of scratching their heads saying what can we do to help relieve some of this crisis. Because the people who are dying are not criminals, these are mothers, fathers, people’s children, folks with lives, with families with wives.
WMRA: What is someone normally going through, when they say to themselves, “I think I’ve got a problem, I need help?”
Stewart: No one comes to addiction treatment because life went well. What that would look like is either you’re using drugs recreationally or you’re taking prescription pain killers as prescribed by your physician, to deal with a legitimate medical issue. But overtime, because they develop a tolerance, now the prescription that’s available to them is not meeting the need of the pain that they have. So perhaps they’re purchasing additional pills on the street, perhaps they’re using heroin to supplement, perhaps they’ve taken all of their medication before their prescription ran out. And then the doctor has noticed that and cut them off, and so now they’re seeking options on the street. But, whatever the problem, people find themselves in the position of being addicted, without starting down a path that you would traditionally think leads there. For example, 2 to 3 times as many people who die of opioid overdoses in Rockingham County die of prescription drug overdoses, not of heroin.
WMRA: If someone is addicted to opioids, what does it do to their body? What’s going on inside?
Stewart: That’s an awesome question. If you had diabetes, and you choose to eat sugar, right, no one would call you names or attempt to restrict your access to care. You need insulin? Here’s insulin. With addiction, the short version is, that the human brain seeks pleasure and when it finds a greater reward than expected, at a biologic level, it locks into that and it remembers that and prioritizes that above other things. So that pleasure that you feel when you have a greater than reward than you expected, you come home and someone’s cooked you a nice dinner for you, that is your midbrain talking to your cortex. Here’s the problem, opiates radically elevate that pleasure response. So, what starts to happen with opiate addiction, and I’ve seen this more so than with other addictive substances, because I’ve worked in treatment for all substances not just opiates, the brain will prioritize the drug over your family, your morality, the law, because when you’re in withdrawal, the body thinks its dying. So, this guides me around the corner, so why medicated assisted treatment? Medication assisted treatment provides hope, to people that are struggling in this cycle. What we see a after a year, about 90% of our clients are opiate free and about 73% of our clients are either enrolled in school or are full time employed. So, what were really talking about is not just about drug treatment, it’s about getting your life back. So, what medication assisted treatment is, is a medication that will take someone out of withdrawal, does not get them high, and sits on their opiate receptors in a way that prevents them from getting effectively high off of illicit opiates.
WMRA: If there’s one thing that you think that everyone need to do to fix this problem, what would it be?
Stewart: It would be to change the way we associate stigma with this population; and so sometimes communities will say “well we don’t want a methadone clinic in our community”. And they’re associating the symptoms of addiction with the presence of the treatment. You wouldn’t get angry that people with heart conditions were surrounding the cardiology clinic, and so it’s important to realize that when you have a treatment center in your community, the rates for all sorts of negative things go down, right. Crime rights go down, prostitution rates go down, and so I think that if people were not afraid of push back from their employers and from their community and from their family members, then more folks would seek legitimate treatment and get better. I guess then that would be my wish, that people take a look at the human beings who are suffering and treat them in that way, rather than stigmatizing them or judging them.