The opioid crisis took center stage Thursday morning, when professionals, county officials and advocates gathered at a workshop to discuss the best strategies for combating an epidemic that has killed more than a dozen people this year in Howard County and ravaged the lives of countless more.
Almost every speaker at the event, which was hosted by Howard County's Office of Emergency Management, had a loved one who suffered from substance abuse.
County officials, including Director of Policy and Programs Carl DeLorenzo and Health Officer Maura Rossman, walked the audience through scores of devastating statistics on the ever-growing number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses and emergency room visits in Howard County because of opioids.
DeLorenzo also discussed the county's multi-faceted strategy for taking on the crisis, which includes a data-based and coordinated approach between prevention, treatment, recovery and law enforcement.
Aspects of the strategy include both large-scale projects such as the establishment of the county's first residential treatment facility, and policy initiatives, including a look at how the county's drug courts treat offenders. DeLorenzo said the county had a "full menu of options at our disposal" to allow officials to create the most effective strategy possible.
The highlight of the morning was a panel discussion from local advocates and drug prevention and recovery specialists on how to best raise awareness about opioid abuse, end the stigma related to the disease and effectively get people into treatment plans.
That word — disease — was one of the main focuses of the workshop, to instill in families that substance abuse, whether from alcohol, heroin or other drugs, is an illness and needs to be treated as one. Speakers such as Catherine Blessing, a recovered alcoholic who works as a peer recovery specialist at the Howard County Health Department, said it is vital to eliminate the stigma behind abuse, as it is one of the main obstacles people face in reaching out for help and treatment.
"Stigma keeps people invisible, stigma keeps people afraid," Blessing said during the panel.
A common call of the morning was the desperate need for more recovery facilities in the county for not only immediate detox and rehabilitation, but months- and years-long support for those in the process of rebuilding their lives.
Mike Elder, who with his wife, Joanie, owns the Donleigh House, a recovery house in Columbia, said the county is in dire need of more facilities like theirs to foster supportive environments for those in recovery that can help connect them with long-term housing, jobs and other resources. Elder said that due to lack of space, he is forced to turn away a person a week from the house.
"You can't address the opioid crisis until you address the housing crisis," he said during the panel.
Barbara Allen, a substance abuse education advocate who has also lost three family members to substance abuse, echoed Elder's point, and specifically noted the need for more sober housing for women in the region. She also discussed the need for a greater understanding of the resources available to people suffering from addiction.
"Ignorance kills," Allen said.
Other panelists, including long-time county resident Diane Huss, who has worked with Optum Care Services and the Rouse Co. and is a member of Raising Addiction Awareness With Reality, said one of the keys to raising awareness of the disease is to bring the issue to people individually at the grassroots level.
Huss said she wanted to see more public-private partnerships and coordination between the county and faith-based organizations, as well as conversations happening in places such as senior centers, where grandparents often lack the tools and knowledge to discuss the issue with their grandchildren.
She added that one of the most important places to have conversations about drug abuse is within the family, charging parents with the responsibility of discussing it with their kids. The more conversations that happen, she said, the less the stigma.
"Everybody's got a past, everybody's got a closet," Huss said.
Reach Kate Magill at email@example.com.