More than 600 people were at the Strand Theatre in Plattsburgh Tuesday evening for a community forum on the prescription opioid and heroin addiction crisis. The evening featured a guest expert on how the drugs affect the brain.
A new coalition has formed in the North Country to address the increasing levels of addiction in the region and the state. Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County, or SPARCC, includes recovery and treatment experts, law enforcement and elected officials, educators, NGO’s and concerned individuals. Their first event at the Strand Theatre was intended to raise awareness about the impact of the heroin and opioid crisis. Michael Nerney, the former director of the Training Institute of Narcotic and Drug Research and a national consultant on adolescent chemical dependency and addiction, spoke on the science of addiction and the brain. He was stunned to see the number of people who attended. “I think it's really critical when you link two things together. One is changes happen in the brain and two is this is how it plays out in somebody’s behavior. So it gets to be like a puzzle. Now how do we solve for it as opposed to blame people or degrade people or judge people?”
There has been an increased tendency to refer to addiction as a disease and Nerney’s presentation illustrated those facts. “Tonight I talked about measurable changes in substrates in the brain. And when you lose the place in your brain, because it's lost its ability to respond, the chemistry is not there, the structure is not there, the receptor sites aren’t there, that you can no longer when your five year old hugs you feel this charge of love and devotion and affection that is a disease state. You know I'm on these college campuses. I’ve been talking to this kid and he’s like I'm worried about my dorm mate. He's smoking heroin. I'm like you know it's pretty addictive. Oh well, I don't think he's going to get addicted to it and so I say why's that? And he goes: Oh he's in the honors program. So I say it's not about how smart you are. It's about how much access that drug has to different parts of your brain.”
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Board member Lowell Wurster says he has researched addiction and was pleased to see so many concerned people. But he wants to see more action that actually helps addicts. “Most people don't understand that when people are under the influence of opioids they truly aren’t the person that they actually are. And we have to really get it through our thick skulls as Americans that addiction is real. We need to get them into treatment. But you know on the other side of things it has to start with the person themselves. I've seen a lot die. And I've seen some that are doing really, really well. And like we learned tonight you know just the emotional response in the brain can take up two to five years. We need to get people in treatment, teach them about triggers, teach them about how to deal with these situation so that they can become you know productive members of our lives again.”
Behavioral Health Services North Employee Assistance Services Director Bonnie Black works with employers that are trying to keep their workplaces drug-free. She says opioids, specifically heroin, account for the majority of the positive drug tests returned from places of employment. “The employers have these policies mainly for safety. They don't want people getting injured on the job. They don't want people injuring others by having accidents because they can't see, think, they can't feel pain. You know I mean we have seen people that lose digits, you know fingers, even hands on machinery because you know they don't feel the pain. Where most of us will flinch because of the pain receptor connection with the brain that you know we're going to be able to do that, recognize ouch. Nope, they're under the influence of opiates and there goes the finger, there goes the hand, whatever.”
Video clips from the community forum are on the Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County’s Facebook page.