Community asked to participate in mental health, addiction forums

Date Published: 
Feb. 9, 2018

Each day, more than 246 Americans die from suicide or a drug overdose in the United States. One in five Americans will experience a mental illness this year, half of which will result in a substance-use disorder.

These staggering statistics can be attributed directly to the rise in opioid and heroin use. In 2016, Delaware had 431 documented cases of substance-exposed newborns. Additionally, one in four teens in our state described having felt sad and hopeless for more than two weeks straight.

This public health crisis impacts the entire spectrum of healthcare from the cradle to grave, including steadily rising costs, lost wages and disability payments estimated at nearly $467 billion per year.

Each day, as a nurse and as lieutenant governor, I receive phone calls and emails from Delawareans looking for help — family members desperately looking for guidance on where to turn because a child, sibling or parent is struggling with addiction and/or mental illness. I can sense the fear and grief in their voices. They are at their wits end. They feel alone as they try desperately to understand addiction, find treatment and get help.

They want to prevent their son or daughter, family member or friend from becoming one of those roughly 90 individuals who daily succumbs to the opioid and heroin epidemic that has gripped our state, and our nation. They experience the heartache of a lost loved one, in addition to the frustration of navigating a fractured and ill-equipped behavioral health system.

We need bold solutions, an unwavering commitment, and a unified, comprehensive effort to build an effective behavioral health system in Delaware. An epidemic of this proportion cannot be addressed by activists, experts and elected officials sitting in a room. It cannot be addressed by piecemeal proposals. It’s going to require the coordinated committed effort of all of us.

The urgency of this problem is why Gov. Carney and leaders in the General Assembly created the Behavioral Health Consortium. By bringing stakeholders — including those affected by this epidemic — to the table, we can ensure that all voices are not only heard, but that they instigate us to action.

Multiple state agencies, from DHSS to the Department of Justice and others in between, have been working in good faith, yet independently, on this crisis. While they are well-intentioned, these uncoordinated efforts have resulted in a fractured system of care and a plan of attack that has inadequately addressed the many facets of this crisis. We need to smash these silos and push for answers.

We can’t rely on a few experts and state officials to work on a solution in a vacuum. We have to approach this from all sides, and that means engaging the entire community. We have to approach this with the understanding that addiction is a disease and is directly related to a person’s mental, emotional and physical health. The real-life experience of those living with addiction is needed to shape the solutions we seek to cease this epidemic.

Recently, the second Imagine Delaware event brought together experts and providers, the Attorney General and other law-enforcement agencies, as well as families and those seeking help for addiction. Included on the event panel was Dr. Andrew Kolodny, director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University who stated, “We have roughly two groups of Americans that are getting addicted. We have an older group that is overdosing on pain medicine, and we have a younger group that is overdosing on black market opioids.”

To add to that, the danger of these drugs is increased because of the practice of mixing heroin with fentanyl, resulting in the surge in deaths. Speak to any emergency room doctor or nurse, and they will share the stories of the steady sea of individuals rushed to the hospital as the result of an overdose. Many leave the hospital without accessing treatment. Some make it to a rehab facility and find a path to recover their lives. Meanwhile, others are forced to go out of state due to a lack of adequate treatment options for addiction and mental health.

The Behavioral Health Consortium will hold community forums throughout Delaware beginning Feb. 6. We will engage with families, community leaders, law-enforcement, educators, health officials and practitioners to hear their stories and recommendations. We will also gather data and best practice models to find and implement real solutions to this epidemic — and that starts with creating a holistic, comprehensive behavioral health system.

This will require a collective effort to remove barriers that currently exist, including stigma, lack of awareness, inadequate access to care and prevention. We need community input to ensure we achieve our goal to stop the opioid epidemic. Please visit https://ltgov.delaware.gov/behavioral-health-consortium/ for more information, and please join us at one of the community forums near you, and help save lives and heal the behavioral health system.

Editor’s note: The local community forum on mental health and addiction is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 15, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Georgetown Public Library, 123 W. Pine Street, Georgetown.