Imagine finally trying to find treatment to overcome an addiction to heroin — only to be told you need to wait hours, or even days, for a spot to open.
Imagine the terrible pangs of withdrawal setting in while you wait.
Utica resident Erin Wiggins said she watched as her boyfriend lived out that scenario. It was during the holidays and they couldn’t find him a bed anywhere, she said. So he ended up using heroin again.
And he overdosed, his life saved by the couple’s Narcan, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.
“It’s very scary because you’ve got somebody who’s vulnerable enough who wants treatment at this moment,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins’ boyfriend soon found a bed in an inpatient treatment facility and is in recovery today. But many in similar situations haven’t done so well, relapsing, even dying, before they ever begin treatment.
And that’s why some of the latest initiatives to fight the opioid epidemic have focused on that key moment when someone first decides to go into treatment, focusing on getting them into treatment faster and using peer advocates to make sure no one waits for help alone.
“The approach that we’re doing is different, unique and it works,” said Nicole Cozza, clinical services coordinator for the Addiction Stabilization Center at the Rescue Mission of Utica. “Having somebody there by your side, knowing what it feels like, they’ve been there so it helps the person actually have some hope that somebody is not going to leave their side and they’ll make sure they’ll get to a safe place.”
The opioid epidemic continues to ravage the Mohawk Valley: 52 people overdosed on opioids in Oneida County last year. Treatment providers say they haven’t yet seen any drop off in the number of people needing help.
But past experience has helped state and county officials and area providers to craft new programs to overcome old obstacles. That’s the impetus behind the 24/7 open access center being established by the Neighborhood Center, working through its Mobile Crisis Assessment Team and the rescue mission’s addiction stabilization center.
The center will help people get help whenever they ask for it, linking them to area inpatient and outpatient treatment providers, Cozza said. And peer advocates will offer support during any delays, she said.
That can help people through dark moments, whether while waiting for treatment or while trying to stay on track during recovery, said Wiggins, a volunteer, certified peer advocate with the Center for Family Life and Recovery.
“You have someone on your side who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself, someone who you can look up to as a role model because they survived it,” she said.
The state also is asking residential treatment facilities, such as Insight House in Utica, to make changes designed to shift the focus of treatment away from the amount of time a patient has spent in treatment to a patient’s actual clinical needs at that moment.
As part of that initiative, Insight House, which currently offers a six-to-nine-month residential treatment program in addition to outpatient services, will change its residential services to include shorter-term rehabilitation and stabilization for patients who are going through withdrawal, said President/CEO Donna Vitagliano. That will mean more intensive medical coverage, round-the-clock availability of addictions counselors – and faster access to treatment, she said.
“I think their goal is trying to engage people immediately, when they feel ‘I”m ready now. I don’t want to wait a week from next Tuesday or be on a wait list for a residential bed that could be weeks from now,’” she said.
Insight House also hopes to start a reintegration program with off-campus supportive housing for those who have finished treatment, Vitagliano said. But the state still is reviewing the application for the new programs and the timetable for the changes isn’t certain, she said.
Services go mobile
Earlier this year, Helio Health in Syracuse began another program making it easier to link Oneida County residents with help – a mobile service that uses vehicles to bring evaluations and referral into the community. Helio peer educators also drive patients to treatment appointments.
And peer educators are helping another big effort to offer more support to people in recovery. The Center for Family Life and Recovery has put together a peer collaborative of volunteer, certified recovery coaches (who plan to continue their training to become certified peer advocates). The rescue mission has hired four. Some treatment providers have hired them.
“Having those with lived experience teach those in recovery in their process is really a wonderful addition to recovery pathways,” said Ambi Daniel, family support navigator at the Center for Family Life and Recovery.
Recovery can be a lonely time when your friends who still are using can’t really support you, Wiggins said. You feel all alone, she said.
“It’s the only disease that carries a stigma with it where people shame you instead of trying to help you,” she said.
Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).