Since 2011, cases of opioid overdose deaths have dramatically increased in Washtenaw County, becoming an epidemic.

At a community-wide event “In Our Midst: The Opioid Epidemic, and a Community Response” Tuesday night at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, experts discussed the crisis, and potential ways the community can engage to help find solutions. A similar event was held last week at the Ann Arbor District Library

The event was hosted by Dawn Farm, a 501c(3) nonprofit organization based in Ypsilanti, with an outpatient center in Ann Arbor, that works to assist addicts and alcoholics achieve long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol.

Nationwide, opioid addiction has taken an approximate 150 lives a day, five to 10 people an hour, leading to a total of 48,000 lives lost in 2015, according to Center for Disease Control. In Washtenaw County, there were 49 reported deaths from opioid overdoses in 2015, and in 2016 there have been 45 thus far.

Event coordinator Mark Albulov, a residential therapist at Dawn Farm, said in an interview that breaking down stereotypes around recovery and educating on its effects was the main goal of the evening.

“We want to disseminate the fact that people can and do recover, that there is an option … also to educate people that it is a medical disease,” Albulov said. “It’s not a moral failure, it’s not a criminal behavior, it’s a medical disease that has treatment.”

Stephen Strobbe, University of Michigan clinical associate professor, said the national crises of overdose deaths and the patterns of addiction-related incidences in Washtenaw County are strongly correlated. Strobbe is also the co-chair for the Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project, a volunteer organization that unites law enforcement, public health, treatment facilities and other providers to secure opioid addiction treatment.

“This is a community initiative,” Strobbe said. “A handful of experts alone are not going to turn this around, it really does take a concentrated and concerted effort and those communities who have responded cohesively have had the best outcome.”

In explaining the magnitude of the issue, he cited CDC data that shows opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled from 1999 to 2014 in the United States and exceeded the amount of motor vehicle deaths last year. He added that there were enough prescriptions written for every adult in the United States to receive a bottle of opioid pain medications.

He told the crowd that the WHI implements the Lazarus Model, an evidence-driven platform started by Project Lazarus, a public health nonprofit in Wilkes County, N.C. The model posits that opioid overdose deaths are preventable and communities are ultimately responsible for managing their own health, aiming to combine ideas of public awareness, coalition action, data and evaluation, as well as community education, addiction treatment and provider education.

Strobbe said to reduce the stigmas associated with substance abuse, there needs to be an understanding and acceptance by community members that it is should be seen as a medical disorder that respond to treatment.

Ashton Marr, president of Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project and another speaker, described her personal experience of being in long-term recovery from opiod use.

“I’ve heard time and time again that it’s easier to write the prescription, as opposed to getting into conflict with somebody or fighting about it,” Marr said. “But the fact of the matter is they have the hand in the individual’s death if they let the addiction spiral. Doctors are in a position where they need to do no harm and give care to people, so it’s important that they understand how to treat addiction, recovery-related resources, how to safely prescribe to people, and how to treat pain.”

Marr also emphasized the importance of bystander care, including calling 911 and providing resources for help, like the sheriff’s office for community outreach where she works.

Clinical Assistant Prof. Gina Dahlem, a nurse practitioner at the University, also highlighted ways police officers and first responders are combating opioid overdoses locally, through administration of the drug naloxone.

She demonstrated how a bystander who isn’t a trained professional could administer naloxone, and said it was a crucial part of combating the opioid epidemic.

“Naloxone reversals are critical, these are saving lives,” Dahlem said. “The next important step is for individuals who benefit from these reversals to have links with community peers for peer support, to help treatment and lifelong recovery.”

Dahlem also explained other ways naloxone is being used for opioid reversal, including intramuscular naloxone used at the VA Ann Arbor hospital and co-prescriptions for family members, relatives and friends of potential opioid users.

Strobbe told the crowd that community events like this one have the power to shatter the conspiracy of silence that often keeps people from seeking and receiving life-saving treatment, which Marr echoed, saying she hopes to continue raising public awareness.

“As long as we’re still breathing there is hope and help available for us,” Marr said. “Sometimes the process of recovery can start with an overdose, that can be the jarring experience that people go through to see that they may need some help. That’s part of what this disease does — it tells us that we don’t have a disease, that nothing is wrong and so sometimes to have those consequences stare us in the face can be a good opportunity to introduce the idea of help to them.”


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