For the past five years, drug overdoses have been the leading cause of non-natural deaths in Milwaukee County, accounting for more than 1,700 lost lives.
A public health issue that cuts across economic, racial and geographic lines, the opioid crisis continues to affect the region’s workforce, families and community.
The region’s opioid epidemic was at the center of a panel discussion at BizTimes’ Health Care Heroes Awards program. Panelists included Beth Dejongh, associate professor of pharmacy-practice at Concordia University Wisconsin; Ken Hartenstein, licensed professional counselor of medication-assisted treatment at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Brown Deer; and Kenneth Harris Jr., department chair for Justice and Public Policy at Concordia University and retired Milwaukee Police Department lieutenant shift commander.
In addition, featured speaker Adam Kindred, director of prevention programming for Elevate Inc., discussed his work and his personal experiences as a person in long-term recovery.
The opioid epidemic is unique compared to other previous health crises because of its origins, Hartenstein said.
“It often starts with getting a prescription,” he said. “There is a legitimacy there. These pills are produced by a pharmacy company. In my work, I hear the same story over and over and over again: ‘I started out with prescription pain pills that were prescribed to me, and I needed more and more and more so I had to turn to the streets.’”
Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids first, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Kindred said while opioid death statistics garner a lot of attention, it’s important to remember the individual lives affected by addiction.
“A lot of the measures we look at, whether they’re economic or lives lost, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for what’s going on in our communities and the way that it’s impacting families and communities and business and our workforce,” he said.
Kindred said recovery support efforts should be attentive to the needs of families affected by addiction.
“A lot of times there are children that are experiencing trauma as a result of losing a mom or dad or growing up in a household where there is active addiction that’s happening,” Kindred said. “We’re going to see intergenerational effects of the opioid crisis. Even after the opioid deaths stop and we’re able to remedy that, there is still going to be this whole generation of kids that grew up with these really traumatic things happening and we’ll see the ripple effect for years.”
The growing availability of naloxone – a medication, often referred to by the brand name Narcan, that blocks the effects of opioid overdoses – has proven to prevent overdose deaths. Increasingly, police officers, libraries and even school nurse offices are equipping themselves with the antidote. Dejongh sees that as a good thing.
“Any time it’s given, it gives an individual an opportunity to seek treatment,” she said. “Anyone experiencing substance use disorder is entitled to a chance to change their ways.”
But, Dejongh said, there isn’t sufficient data to show whether the administration of naloxone encourages future risk taking. Anecdotally, she said, it isn’t uncommon for officers to respond multiple times to the same scene to administer the antidote.
While individuals experiencing addiction deserve an opportunity to seek treatment, officers also need to be able to address illicit drug use as a crime, Harris said.
“It is illegal,” he said. “History has shown that without consequences, people rarely change their behavior.”
While he expects the opioid crisis to “get worse before it gets better,” Kindred said the growing awareness of the issue has had a galvanizing effect on the community.
“We’re finally starting to address these things and hopefully find a sustainable solution,” he said.
Hartenstein said his patients’ successful outcomes give him hope.
“When we treat (people in recovery) with dignity and with respect and try to treat them as a human being who’s struggling with something, just like any other condition, they respond,” he said. “Once there is trust, we realize there is a whole life’s worth of experiences behind the addiction. As we treat these patients and people as more than just statistics or criminals, we can get to the heart of the problem.”