U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, stopped at the Man Alive Lane Treatment Center in Baltimore to meet clients and discuss initiatives to address the city's opioid crisis. (Andrea K McDaniels/Baltmore Sun video)
Addicts at Man Alive Inc. and Lane Treatment Center get more than just methadone and counseling to treat their drug habit. They make ceramics, take writing classes and put on theater productions meant to assist them with their recoveries, and also get help finding jobs and housing .
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday held the Charles North center up as an example of the broad approach to drug treatment the Obama Administration wants to see more of around the country.
"We need more facilities like this that can take a comprehensive approach to addiction, which can understand addiction is not something that you treat and move on from," Murthy said. "It is a chronic illness, which means we need ongoing long-term follow-up."
Murthy's trip to Baltimore was the first leg of a national tour designed to spur a nationwide discussion on America's opioid crisis. He lauded Baltimore for its cutting-edge work on the issue.
In Maryland, 527 people died of heroin-related causes in the first nine months of last year — the most recent statistics available, and more than triple the number who died during the same period in 2010. In 2014, the last full year for which data is available, 578 deaths were attributed to heroin and 329 to prescription opioids.
For years, drug addiction was viewed as a crime, a character weakness or moral failing, but the medical community increasingly is treating it as a public health problem, combining counseling and methadone treatment with support services that also address social issues, such as poverty and joblessness.
The Man Alive program opened nearly 50 years ago as only the nation's second licensed medication-assisted treatment program at the time. Like many drug programs that started in the 1960s, it took a strong-armed, confrontational approach to addiction treatment. Its methods changed over the years, however, as they had more success addressing the underlying issues that cause addiction.
At the center's "imagination lab," patients do dance performances and take art and theater classes. The exercises build self-esteem and give patients an outlet to relieve the emotional issues that may contribute to addiction, said executive director Karen Reese.
"Addiction is a multi-layered problem and we need to treat the whole person," Reese said.
Regina Brown, 53, credits Man Alive for helping her get control of a drug addiction that started when she was 18. She started with alcohol and eventually progressed to marijuana, cocaine and finally heroin. She went to jail for drug possession but that did nothing to help end her habit.
"I stopped while in there because I had to," she said. "But when I got out, the first thing I wanted to do was use again."
Brown finally sought treatment when she decided she wanted to live to see her granddaughter grow up.
At Man Alive, she learned her addiction was rooted in her negative feelings about her life. The group helped her find a job and stable housing. She created oil paintings, including a self-portrait. She performed in and helped write a play about how drug addicts are treated by family around the holidays. For the first time in her life, she felt a purpose in life.
Patients performed a dance to "Man in the Mirror", a Michael Jackson song, during Murthy's visit. They told him drug addicts need more intensive treatment services and less incarceration.
Murthy agreed that more investment in drug treatment centers would help, as would a change in public attitudes about addiction and treatment, which still carries a negative social stigma.
"There are many communities across the country where people don't want treatment centers," Murthy said. "Where they feel that these kind of centers bring bad people in their community. In addition to investment money, we need to help people understand the importance of these centers and shift how people think about addiction."
Murthy's visit to Man Alive was part of a day-long visit to Baltimore hosted by the Baltimore City Health Department. Later in the day, the Surgeon General participated in a roundtable discussion, hosted by Leana Wen, the city health commissoner, and OneBaltimore chairman, Michael Cryor, to discuss health policy and how to catalyze new partnerships throughout the country.
He also went to "grand rounds" with health professionals, medical students, and community leaders at Morgan State University. Grand Rounds are a regular event in hospitals when health care practitioners come together to discuss challenges and to share best practices. Murthy's visit ended with a talk to Johns Hopkins University at a public health conference.
The trip followed a visit by Murthy last month to Chase Brexton Health in Baltimore to announce $94 million in new federal funding for comprehensive drug treatment funding, including $1.8 million going directly to programs in Maryland. Murthy will release a report later this year on substance abuse and addiction; the first time the office has issued a report on the topic.