Before we reach October, I would like to bring awareness to the fact that September is national recovery month. With the MA Department of Public Health reporting an average of more than 500 Medford substance abuse admissions each year, we all know people who have struggled with addiction. (https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2019/03/13/cities.pdf)
This is a time to offer encouragement to those who have begun the never-ending process of recovery and to those who continue to struggle. It’s also a time to celebrate the tremendous efforts of the many family members, friends, and professionals who offer the support needed to make the difficult journey out of substance abuse, including the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition, the Medford Office of Substance Abuse & Prevention Outreach, officers of the Medford Police and Fire departments, and Medford Department of Public Health.
As I’ve learned more about substance use disorders, the statistics show that the problem touches everyone. While more than 50% of Medford admissions for substance abuse are for heroin, 1/3 of such admissions are for alcohol. The problem impacts men and women both. Well-educated and gainfully employed segments of the population are both significantly impacted. Almost 4-in-10 admitted addicts fall in the 31-40 age group, an age when many have families. Indeed, this is an epidemic facing every family in our City in some way and it deserves the focus and urgency of all our community.
Like a lot of problems, the way our City can address the crisis is not through a silver bullet but through a combination of strategies. Most importantly, we need to maintain focus, increase awareness, increase the dialogue and ensure we can be nimble to address various challenges as they evolve. As Mayor, here is how I would focus our efforts, which build off the good work done to date:
1) Prevention. We need to educate our young people and ensure they have paths to avoid drugs and alcohol. We need to work with sports teams to avoid overmedication after injuries and ensure our guidance counselors and teachers are trained in detecting the signs of substance abuse and how to take action to get kids the help they need. We need to help kids understand not just illegal drugs but challenges with abuse of prescription medications.
2) Care for caregivers. The mental toll that caring for people with substance abuse takes on professionals and families is enormous. We must ensure these caregivers have access to mental health resources and supports, most importantly for those on the front lines in fire, police and public health.
3) Expand the use of Narcan. I am not a public health professional and any actions City Hall would advance would be in consultation with healthcare professionals, but everything I’ve seen and read indicates a key to minimizing overdoses is to ready access to Naloxone (aka Narcan). In the last 5 years of data reported, there were 78 deaths from opioid overdoses in Medford. (https://www.mass.gov/…/Opioid-related-Overdose-Deaths-by-Ci…) Ensuring Narcan’s availability across the City, offering trainings on how to administer it and sharing good Samaritan laws will all help keep people alive.
4) Work across agencies. Early warning signs for addiction exist in lots of place: workplaces, schools, courthouses. These are just a few of the places we can see signs and take action, if educated on what to look for and equipped to work across government, public health and other institutions to help.
5) Reduce the opportunities to buy illegal drugs. Our law enforcement and code enforcement departments need to work together to eliminate the opportunity for illegal drugs to be dealt in Medford. We need to crack down on areas prone to use and dealing and enhance the curb appeal throughout our City. We need to think about how our public areas are lit and whether they attract illegal activity.
6) Reduce the stigma. Addiction is a disease. As I previously discussed, it touches every walk of life. We need to keep talking about the issue so people with substance abuse challenges seek help, without the concern of embarrassment or stigma.
The substance abuse epidemic is not a political issue. It’s a public health crisis that we all need to work to solve. While these ideas are a few concrete ways we can make a difference, the problem will take everyone to solve. Its starts by talking about it, by applauding the courage of those in recovery, encouraging those not yet there to take that first step, and by hugging the family members and professionals who fight this battle every day and have the mental scars to show for it.