Georgia Council on Substance Abuse event emphasizes impact of opioids on local community

SHOW OF SUPPORT: Public forum on substance abuse draws large crowd

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More than 150 people turned out for a Georgia Council on Substance Abuse (GCSA) listening session held Thursday evening at First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville. The crowd alternately cheered and wept as attendees shared their personal struggles with substance dependency issues, as well as their frustrations with treatment accessibility and hopes for more recovery options within the community.

“They are someone’s family, they are someone’s friends and we are all affected, in some way, shape or form, in our community at large, whether you know them personally or you do not,” said Brian Kite, who serves as a GCSA recovery community organization (RCO) development project coordinator. “We need to continue to find the supports within our community to lift individuals up.”

Kite said he knows the perils of substance dependency well, having been drug-free for about four years. “As a convicted felon by the State of Georgia, I am working under a State grant to share recovery,” he said. “There’s been so much stigma and negative thinking about this, the connotation when it comes to substance abuse issues.”

He produced Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) data demonstrating drug addiction is becoming more pronounced throughout Georgia — and more lethal. From 2010 to 2017, opioid-related deaths in the state skyrocketed from 426 to over 1,000, as heroin and fentanyl deaths, respectively, increased from 41 and 43 to 267 and 344. 

And not only is Bartow far from immune from the crisis, the DPH numbers show that it’s one of the most deeply afflicted communities in the state.

In 2017 alone, the DPH indicates 14 people in Bartow died from opioid overdoses, while another 43 were hospitalized.

“In a five-year period from 2013 to 2017, Bartow was No. 1 for accidental overdose deaths for the ages 25-44, No. 2 overall for all age groups, No. 2 in suicides from ages 25-44, No. 3 for ages 15-19 and No. 4 in ages 45-54 and No. 3 overall,” Kite said. “This is a very highly-affected area in Georgia.”

Like Kite, GCSA Building Communities of Recovery (BCOR) Coordinator Emily Ribblett has also experienced substance dependency issues firsthand. Indeed, when she was hired by the organization’s executive director Neil Campbell, she wasn’t just a felon, but a fugitive from Virginia.

“For her to take a chance on me and hire me is absolutely incredible and I am so grateful for the opportunity,” Ribblett said.

She explained the intent of the BCOR program, which is funded via a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment grant.

“The idea is to help recovery community organizations, once they get established, help them build long-term sustainability and expand their recovery support services in their communities,” she said.

The pathway to opioid addiction, she said, follows a familiar narrative for many young people. As teenagers, they experience some type of injury or medical condition and are prescribed powerful pain medications. Along the way, they develop a dependency, and now unable to procure the pharmaceuticals, they instead turn to street drugs like heroin to mimic the highs of Oxycontin and Dilaudid.

“Past misuse of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for starting heroin use, especially among people who became dependent on or abused prescription opioids in the past year,” she said. “This indicates that the transition from prescription opioid non-medical use to heroin is often part of the progression to addiction.”

However, there’s another age group that’s also seeing a troubling spike in opioid abuse. 

“We’re finding that this is happening a lot with the elderly population as well,” she said. “They’re getting pain management — opioids — and then they can no longer have a prescription or they don’t have insurance, for whatever reason, and they become addicted to these drugs.”

There is a direct link, she said, between the opioid crisis and the rapid increase in the number of Americans who take their own lives each year.

“There’s definitely a serious correlation between drugs and suicide,” she said. “This is a reality.”

An even more obvious connection, Kite, said can be found in the State’s criminal justice system. Since the 1994 Federal Sentencing Reform Act took effect, he said the number of Georgians imprisoned for drug offenses has dramatically increased.

“Over 560,000 individuals in Georgia are under some form of community supervision, whether that’s direct incarceration, probation or parole,” he said. “That amounts to about one-in-13 individuals, and for a person of color, that number is one-in-six.”

About halfway through the presentation, attendees were asked what they believed to be the biggest gaps in substance abuse-related services within the community. 

Several lamented the lack of accessibility for families who make too much income to qualify for public benefits. Others aired concerns about extensive waiting times for treatment, with one parent stating that she was told she’d have to wait 60 days to get her daughter into treatment — two weeks, if she was able to foot an upfront $450 fee.

A lack of kinship care supports were also discussed. One attendee, unable to qualify for services, said she was asked to quit one of her two jobs to meet eligibility requirements.

“We need better resources, and we need better resource information, a collective of resources,” Kite said. “And yes, better resources for individuals that, maybe, are just out of that qualification bracket.”

Claudia Hamilton, director of Rome’s Living Proof Recovery, said she was encouraged by the high turnout, adding that it bodes well for the local community’s efforts to bring an RCO to Bartow.

“This is a humongous starting point for Bartow County,” she said. “This is huge just to have all these people sit and listen, because I remember when nobody would want to talk about anything.”

As with Kite and Ribblett, she too fought a battle against substance dependency — an issue that cost her virtually everything, including her children.

“Twelve years ago, across the street my son was put in foster care,” she said. “He was in the foster care system for four years, and two of those years I was clean as I walked through that process and tried to get him out.”

A five-time felon, she said she couldn’t even land a job at McDonald’s. Yet with enough community support, she said she was nonetheless able to get the RCO off the ground in Floyd County. 

“We started with this little, tiny, small group and man, it just took off,” she said. “The mission is for you guys to carry this out … the burden now is on you guys, the joy of this program is on you guys, to go and put it out in the community.”

Almost three years later, Living Proof serves about 200 children through various programs and facilitates approximately 1,100 peer interactions every month.

“When I say that volunteers are just vital, I cannot praise my volunteers enough,” she said. “We have over 40 volunteers, and this month alone we will have logged 445 hours of volunteer work … on a nonprofit budget, that’s priceless.”

Gazing at a giant sheet of paper taped to the church walls listing dozens of programs and services throughout the community, she said Bartow County — from her vantage point — already has all of the elements needed for a successful RCO program to take root.

“The plan is here, the solutions are here, so let’s work backward from what we’re going to do with that,” she said.

Nikki Kemp — who grew up in Bartow — helped launch a similar program, the Mosaic Place Recovery Community and Resource Center, in Polk County.

The Highland Rivers Health operation receives funding from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. 

“We started our first meeting on Oct. 1, so we are pretty new,” she said. “We hold about 40-plus meetings a month and here to date, we’ve had over 2,000 services provided.”

One of the biggest accomplishments of the program, she said, has been getting involved with Division of Family and Children Services.

“We’ve been able to get into DFCS, which is pretty awesome,” she said. “We’re now doing Whole Health Action Management (WHAM) with them, and we’re also in probation, Family Treatment Court. I’m a peer for that.”

Kemp said the program has also had success partnering with the local education and justice systems.

“We’re in the jails, we’re in the schools, it’s pretty awesome to see what the community has done for us,” she said. “Because without the community you’ve got, it’s not possible.”

But as Jennifer Barnett, director of the Bartow County Peer Support, Wellness and Respite Center, noted, many people simply aren’t aware of the substance abuse services that already exist within the community.

“What you can do in Respite is you can come and stay at our center for seven days at a time, you can do this every 30 days,” she said. “Our services are free to the community, you can go there and get 24-hour peer support.”

All of the speakers, however, agreed that the community is in dire need of long-term recovery services. As Ribblett indicated, the longer the program an individual is enrolled in, the less likely he or she is to relapse. While those in one-year recovery programs have a 36% success rate, she said those in recovery programming and supports for four-plus years have success rates as high as 86%.

“If somebody goes into a treatment facility for 30, 60, 90 days, what do they do after that?” she said. “That’s when we really need to lift that person up and support them, and that’s where the community comes in.”