Lincoln forum tackles growing opioid epidemic

Lincoln forum tackles growing opioid epidemic

During the Big Screen Discussions event at Cinemaworld last week, specialists and experts in prevention, addiction, and recovery services, along with local law officials answered questions about the opioid epidemic. From left, panelists Diane Dufresne, Pawtucket Prevention Coalition coordinator; Monica Blanchette, Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition coordinator; Pamela Messore, LICSW, Community Care Alliance; Erin Gracia, Teen Challenge of Rhode Island; Gary Zeman, Community Care Alliance peer recovery specialist; Capt. Philip Gould, Lincoln Police Department; Capt. Thomas Smith, Pascoag Fire Department; and panel moderator and Cumberland/Lincoln/No. Smithfield Prevention Coalitions Coordinator Pam Shayer. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

LINCOLN – Two years ago, 323 Rhode Islanders lost their lives to an overdose, marking a 90 percent increase in statewide overdose deaths since 2011.

“One life lost is too many,” said Lisa Carcifero, director of the Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition. “Our region has been tremendously affected by this epidemic.”

On March 5, the coalition sponsored a sold-out event titled “Big Screen Discussions: Addressing the Opioid Epidemic,” held at Cinamaworld in Lincoln. The meeting featured keynote speakers, a panel discussion and a special free viewing of the film “Beautiful Boy,” based on a true story of addiction.

Panel moderator Pam Shayer told The Valley Breeze she hopes last week’s discussion – and those like it in the future – makes people realize that help is available. Addiction, she said, affects people no matter their age, race or hometown, and the resources for recovery are just as diverse as the people impacted.

Shayer, who serves as coordinator for the Cumberland, Lincoln and North Smithfield Prevention Coalitions, said if there’s one thing people know about addiction, it should be that it is not a choice.

“People don’t choose this lifestyle. No one grows up and says ‘I want to be a heroin addict,’” she said. “No one wants to be addicted to these substances.”

Pamela Messore, of the Community Care Alliance, said it’s important to remember that addiction is a disease of the brain.

“The brain changes when someone becomes addicted. You can become addicted to eating, shopping, video games … we have a hardwired system in our body that likes things that make us feel good,” she explained.

An audience member said one of the biggest barriers to recovery that she’s seen is a negative stigma surrounding addiction.

Pawtucket Prevention Coordinator Diane Dufresne said the language has begun to change in an effort to combat the perceived stigma.

“We used to call people alcoholics or drug addicts, then it was substance abusers, and it’s substance use disorder,” she said.

Asked how the opioid epidemic has impacted law enforcement, Lincoln Police Capt. Philip Gould said officers were “living behind the eight ball” when it came to overdose prevention efforts, having never been trained to administer Narcan in the past. Now, he said, officers are able to begin administering lifesaving treatment at the scene of an overdose.

Gould said the dangers for officers have also increased along with the rise in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid causing more than 60 percent of overdose deaths in 2017. Two officers were recently hospitalized after being exposed to a miniscule amount of the substance through their skin.

“Fentanyl is many, many times more potent than just heroin, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously taken,” said Dufresne, who said the substance has been found in pills and marijuana as well as heroin and cocaine.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette with your life,” said Aaron Weisman, the U.S. attorney for the District of R.I.

On the topic of recovery, panelists offered up an array of resources for those who may be struggling with addiction. One option is to speak with a peer recovery specialist such as panelist Gary Zeman, who meets with people at various points of addiction to help them access the right treatment for their recovery.

Panelist Erin Gracia said the faith-centered organization Teen Challenge of Rhode Island helped her gain control of her life after struggling for 15 years with an addiction to heroin and methamphetamine.

“We learn how to live again and be productive members of society again with no maintenance or crutches, using the gifts God has given us to lift each other up,” said Gracia, who has been clean from drugs for nearly two years. “They helped me realize that my story was powerful, and I could help others like me in recovery.”

When one member of the audience asked what age was appropriate to start talking to young people about opioid addiction, Zeman said he planned to talk to his daughter at age 11 or 12 about her genetic risk for the disease.

Gould said it’s important to have an open dialogue with children, as well as to be aware of their friends and what they’re talking about.

“They’re mic’d up, talking to their friends all the time,” he said of smartphones, social media and apps like Snapchat. “That peer pressure is real. It’s not just smoking weed anymore. We’re bringing teenagers back to life with Narcan … we never saw that a few years ago. Parents need to be educated to have the proper answers for their kids.”

“The more knowledge you give your kids the better,” Gracia said. “Encourage them not to be afraid to be different and say ‘no.’”