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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Community and experts search for solutions to opioid epidemic

Panelists prepare to discuss the various components of the opioid epidemic in an event hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Whatcom County on Thursday, June 28. // Photo by Raelynn Sheridan

By Raelynn Sheridan

Every three days the Bellingham Fire Department responds to a drug overdose in the community said Mannix McDonnell, division chief of Emergency Medical Services with the Bellingham Fire Department.

McDonnell said there were 127 overdoses in 2017.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Whatcom County held a panel discussion Thursday, June 28 to educate the community about opioids, who opioid users are and what they need.

The panel itself consisted of a range of professionals and recovering addicts, all there to share their knowledge with whomever was willing to learn that evening.

Christine Furman, a panelist and therapeutic court coordinator for Whatcom County, said of the 37 patients currently in the drug court program, 36 are opiate addicts.

Furman has been with drug court for two years and has seen a spike in the number of users in Whatcom County in that time.

Panelists noted a part of the problem is a lack of resources and education about opioids in the community.

There is a lack of resources in Whatcom County, panelist Yvonne Prouty of Pioneer Human Resources said.

Prouty works at Whatcom Community Detox and said there is a desperate need for beds for patients to detox. Currently, the detox center only has eight beds, with eight more approved for funding, but Prouty said soon that will not be enough either.

Prouty helps coordinate medically-assisted treatment, which begins in detox.

According to a previous Western Front article, Whatcom County Jail does not supply inmates with medications that treat opioid users, like Suboxone. The panelists mentioned Suboxone throughout the evening due to its success with addicts’ recovery in the county.

Sometimes addicts that have received treatment and are taking Suboxone will be pulled into jail, for one reason or another, and no longer have access to these medications. Once released from jail, the likelihood that they will relapse is high said Eric Harry, a panelist and care navigator for Cascade Medical Advantage.

Panelists said it’s important for the community to realize the role mental health and trauma play in opioid addiction.

Harry said opioids treat the pain, but not the underlying cause of the pain and that mental health is a huge component of the epidemic and recovery.

“Opiates treat physical and emotional pain,” Furman said.

Amy Armstrong, NAMI of Whatcom County’s outreach and volunteer coordinator, also noted the importance of educating the public on the mental health aspect of addiction, which is why NAMI hosts events like this. She lost a friend to addiction and knows how important it can be to try to understand a person struggling with addiction before it’s too late.

Harry reminded attendees that something simple as asking an addict their name is a good first step to humanizing the epidemic.

The panel discussed a need for de-stigmatization of addicts and better-integrated healthcare. There are a number of steps to take in order to begin the healing process from opioids and often the work it takes to figure out payment, who to see and where to go makes the process of recovery difficult.

Attendee Rev. Bobbi Virta said she didn’t realize the severity of the problem and how much information there is on the opioid epidemic in Whatcom County. She was also surprised by the lack of resources in the county, but said she was glad to have learned so much from the panel.

“I’m going to take the information and apply it to my congregation,” Virta said.

Armstrong said NAMI holds education panels similar to the opioid panel multiple times a year, but the turnout for the opioid panel was larger than usual. The four rows of chairs and tables set out for community members were nearly full during the panel.

*On June 30 at 10:50 a.m., a correction was made to Amy Armstrong’s title 

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