By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – The Church and its people were very much a part of an opioid prevention forum that encouraged attendees to support those with addictions – even when they repeatedly relapse.
The forum, held March 16 in St. Peter Parish’s gym, was sponsored by the parish, the district attorney’s office, the SHINE Initiative and the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester. St. Peter’s pastor, Msgr. Francis J. Scollen, was among those present.
As a toddler freely ran round, emcee Paul Richard, executive director of the SHINE Initiative, said that’s typical at St. Peter’s. He said he and Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., another of the speakers, attend Mass there.
“If you want to join a wonderful, wonderful parish … come to St. Peter’s,” Mr. Richard said.
Through tears, Bianca Matos, a former Boys & Girls Club member, told about how her brother’s addiction had affected her life. Audience member Theresa MacLellan then got up and embraced her.
“I’m a mom and I’m here on behalf of my two sons I lost,” Ms. MacLellan said. “Thank God for Msgr. Scollen and my faith.… My boys were my whole entire world.” One took his life in jail and, six months later, the other relapsed and died of an overdose, she said. She said her concern now is for her grandchildren.
Ms. Matos had spoken about how her brother wanted to show love and happiness to his family even when he was depressed. After an accident, he took painkillers, and later overdosed on heroin, she said.
She said if listeners know someone with a drug problem, they should “just harass them” to get help, just as they would go all out to save a drowning child.
Ms. MacLellan said what’s going on now is astonishing and horrendous.
“We do need to be part of the solution,” she said. “People need people.”
That was a key message of the official speakers too.
Elizabeth Hamilton, the Boys & Girls Club executive director, said the opioid issue in Worcester affects everyone. But sometimes neighbors shun families with drug problems instead of trying to support them.
“There’s a lot that we can do,” she said. She urged listeners who know someone in need to help them seek treatment, and highly recommended that their family members also seek treatment for themselves.
People need ongoing recovery support, she said. She said relapse is part of the recovery process; one learns through relapsing. It takes seven to 10 relapses to become clean, she said.
She urged listeners not to take the blame; one can’t force someone else to change. But, she said, “We have to forgive each other … and we have to praise when things are going well.”
At the Boys and Girls Club “we really believe that prevention is the answer,” she said.
That involves education about how addiction is an illness and programs to help youth develop healthy habits and coping skills, including exercise, yoga and mindfulness, she said. Mentors are also provided for club members and alumni.
Most times it’s not club members who are addicted to opioids, but their parents or siblings, Ms. Hamilton said. Users sometimes steal money, and law enforcement gets involved. Or they might use rent money for drugs, and their children might be taken away. She said she thinks there is a need for more treatment centers where mothers can go with their children.
Mr. Richard spoke about the SHINE Initiative seeing mental illness in youth and young adults as a mainstream health issue. When people are physically sick they tell someone, but that’s harder to do with mental illness, he said. So it is important to ask young people, “Are you OK?”
A child whose brain is exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences has an increased risk for depression, suicide or addiction, he said. They may not show signs of this until the stresses of teenage life hit them.
He said well-known people live with a mental disorder and continue to accept treatment, knowing this is a lifetime issue for them.
In the United States, 467,000 adolescents are non-medical users of pain relievers, Mr. Richards said.
He gave the following statistics for opioid-related deaths in Worcester County: 113 in 2013, 168 in 2014 and 218 in 2015.
District Attorney Early spoke about more than 30 suspected heroin overdose deaths in Worcester County this year, 13 of them in the city of Worcester.
He asked how things got to this point. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes more than 80 percent of the world’s opioids, he said. (Heroin is an opioid.)
He spoke of a pharmaceutical company telling doctors it had discovered the answer to pain. It wrongly claimed that the painkiller OxyContin, another opioid, is not addictive.
The district attorney talked about approaching the problem in various ways and mentioned a $400,000 grant his office received to help with this crisis.
Other drugs, in conjunction with therapy, can be used to get people off opioids, he said. And the drug narcan quickly reverses an overdose.
He called for compassion, for using the terms “son,” “sister,” etc. instead of “crack addict.”
“We’re always going to be tough on traffickers,” he said. But he said he doesn’t want to jail drug users; he wants to get them treatment.