I know all about the opioid epidemic that is hitting our region with a vengeance, not just professionally but personally. As a member of the MHASWPA team, I am using both my personal and professional knowledge to make a difference in the lives of people in our region suffering from this tragic epidemic.
Before embarking on a career in social work, I raised three sons in what could be described as a Norman Rockwell painting. Dad was an engineer and I was a stay at home mom. I baked bread and home schooled the elementary school boys who were altar boys at the local Catholic Church. It seemed like the perfect family. As the boys grew up and began attending Hempfield Area High School, I began working part time and the boys’ Dad made a career change that would involve traveling 4 days a week. In high school the boys all had part time jobs at local restaurants, played sports and had numerous friends. We were the typical American family. When the 2 older boys were in college and the youngest, Demetre, was a senior in high school, my husband and I divorced.
After high school Demetre lived on his own, continued his part time job at a restaurant, enrolled in Westmoreland County Community College, and began experimenting with heroin, which quickly led to dependence and addiction. Demetre was always the risk taker in the family- but little did we know, he had been experimenting with alcohol and marijuana since the age of 13 and prescription pills since the age of 15.
Demetre tried to keep his substance use a secret from us and tried several times to quit on his own. The withdrawal was simply too excruciating for him to bear without help. Five years into his addiction, Demetre admitted himself into a 21 day inpatient rehab facility. This would fix him, right? When he came home that summer I thought, “Everything is going to be ok. I have my son back.” But as I was learning, 21 days is not enough. Within 3 months Demetre was back to using again. This time wreaking havoc on the entire family.
By now, I was in graduate school and learning everything thing I could about substance use. Demetre had been actively using heroin for 7 years. Using Motivational Interviewing techniques, I was able to help Demetre enter a long term substance use treatment facility, participate in an Intensive Outpatient Program, and set up an individualized recovery house and plan as part of an aftercare program.
I recognize that most individuals experiencing substance use disorder don’t have access to the intensive aftercare program that I designed for my son. I am working with MHASWPA to give family members and individuals with substance use issues the help they need. MHASWPA is collaborating with other agencies in Westmoreland County to design and implement evidenced based preventive, educational, and supportive programs to combat the opioid and overdose epidemic in our region.
On December 23, 2017 Demetre celebrated 1 year clean and advocates for substance use treatment and education reform. Today Demetre considers himself and artist, an activist, and an advocate. My heart no longer breaks for the broken dreams; instead, it leaps for the new possibilities.
The opioid epidemic has taken so many lives over the past two years that the National Center for Health Statistics (December 2017) finds the life expectancy in the United States has dropped again. We see the impact of this in our region. The Westmoreland County Coroner's report indicates the highest overdose death rate the county has ever seen- 183 confirmed and pending as of December 15, 2017. MHASWPA is taking steps to address not just mental health, but substance use as well. In September the agency changed its mission statement to include substance use and continues to seek effective and innovative ways to combat the epidemic.