Black Balloon Day draws attention to heroin, opioid epidemic to spur conversation

Seventeen black balloons were strung to the heroin overdose tally sign outside the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air earlier this week.

Five more were tied to the railing outside Bel Air Town Hall.

Each black balloon represented a person who died in Harford County from a heroin or other opioid overdose — the 17 who have died this year and the five who died in the town of Bel Air last year, according to the Sheriff’s Office and Bel Air Police Department.

Black Balloon Day, as March 6 has come to be known nationwide, is designated to raise awareness of overdose deaths.

In Harford County this year, 17 people have died from heroin or opioid related overdoses while another 57 have overdosed and survived, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

In 2017, 450 people overdosed on heroin or another opiate in Harford County and 81 of them died, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“We will continue to remember that this deadly addiction is taking members of our community from us and we will continue to raise awareness until this epidemic releases our community from its clutches,” Cristie Kahler, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Office, said Wednesday.

The balloons were put up Tuesday in partnership with Harford County’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

Community conversation

Joe Ryan, who heads the drug control policy office, said he hopes the balloons will spur conversation among the people who see them.

“We want parents to tell their kids about how dangerous it is, about all the devastation of drug use, experimenting with drugs,” Ryan said. “It’s something really simple: Just people having that conversation about the devastation that is taking place related to heroin overdose.”

That devastation, he said, starts early, in elementary school, and should continue through middle and high school. By teaching the younger students now, “hopefully as young adults they will be making better decisions when it comes to experimenting with drugs,” Ryan said.

Raising awareness is one of the county’s many ways of fighting the heroin epidemic that has raged on for the last four years.

The tally board outside each Sheriff’s Office building and other police departments; the HOPE trailer; and annual presentations of the play “Addicted;” are among the many other efforts being undertaken by groups working together to bring the crisis to an end in Harford.

“Addicted” will return to the stage Saturday at Mount Zion Church in Bel Air and Friday, March 23 to the John Carroll School in Bel Air. Both performances begin at 7 p.m.

Written by Christle Henzel, a school psychologist at North Harford High, and performed by North Harford students and alumni, “Addicted” has been seen more more than 2,000 students, parents and other Harford citizens since it’s been performed.

“It’s an honest look at the effect of addiction on the individual and on the people who love them. And it’s gut-wrenching,” said Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for the administration of Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who is expected to attend the performance at John Carroll. “It’s a powerful show. It doesn’t pull punches.”

“Addicted” provides a peer-to-peer message, which studies have found is an effective way to reach young people, Mumby said.

“It’s performing by young people, it’s directed to young people,” she said.

Glassman’s and the county administration’s support of the performances is another way “of getting the message to young people about the devastating impact of all kinds of addiction,” including heroin, alcohol and prescription pain pills, she said.

“Sometimes young people don’t make the best decisions,” Mumby said. “With a drug like heroin, one time can rewire the brain in a way that makes it difficult to stop, in a way that other drugs don’t. It’s uniquely devastating in that way.”

In an interview last month, the county executive said he believes county government’s efforts to educate high school- and middle school-aged young people about the danger of using opioids has made a positive impact in the community, even as overdose deaths have risen, and in particular, among people in their 30s.

Treatment assistance

In Bel Air, police want to remind people affected by the opioid crisis of the importance of getting treatment and support, Chief Charles Moore said.

“This advice extends to those suffering from substance-abuse disorders and their families and friends,” Moore said in a news release.

Five people died in the Town of Bel Air in 2017 from a heroin or opioid overdose; 28 people overdosed and survived, Moore said.

Bel Air officials work with Family and Children’s Services, Harford County Health Department and the Office of Drug Control Policy to provide trained recovery coaches to address the crisis.

For people seeking treatment for themselves or someone else, the town and county coordinate with the non-profit Addiction Connections Resource, 443-417-7810, which can help with getting someone into treatment or helping them with their recovery post-treatment, Mumby said.

Through partnerships and matching funds, the county has been able to put $1 million toward treatment and prevention support, she said.

In 2017, ACR provided services to 229 people, placing 97 in treatment and 159 in long-term recovery houses.

The county funding supports treatment and prevention efforts, including improving access to treatment, youth diversion programs and strengthened post-treatment support to help addicts maintain their sobriety, Mumby said.

People in recovery can get help with job placement, getting their GED, credit repair, she said.

“It’s once an individual is clean and helping them live a happy and healthy life,” Mumby said.

ACR and the county work with Susquehanna Workforce Network to provide job training and education.

She cited as an example a woman who was in recovery and needed $1,000 to continue her education. That was provided for her and “it was that connection that build a bridge to a better life,” Mumby said.

Other success stories include two women who graduated in 2017 from the nursing program at Harford Community College — one is a nurse in the transplant unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital and one is a nurse in the cardiac unit at University of Maryland Medical System.

The county has also provided 90 peer recovery coaches, who work one-on-one with someone after being released from a medical treatment facility.

“They help navigate the support services, get the services they need after they leave the critical interventions,” Mumby said.

The county has also worked with Birthright of Bel Air and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to reduce the number of substance-exposed newborns, Mumby said.

Pregnant women suffering from addiction are provided with parenting skills, insurance and outpatient treatment programs, as well as incentives such as baby supplies to stay in the program.

“In a beautiful cycle, we have Boy Scouts that donate young baby supplies we then use in this program to incentivize mothers to remain in treatment,” Mumby said. “Talk about young people helping young people — that’s about as good as it gets.”

In 2017, assistance was provided to 32 mothers, she said.

In the upcoming budget, Glassman will propose allocating $250,000 for a 24/7 crisis center, which he said recently he envisions as a “triage center” with emergency beds and “wraparound services” through which people with mental health and addiction issues can receive immediate treatment.

The location would be “somewhere that’s fairly private, where you can pull in and get those kind of services,” if a loved one is having a crisis over the weekend or in the early morning hours, the county executive said.

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