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Recent forums 'woke up' the community about Harford's heroin epidemic, addiction specialists say

'It's helped remove the stigma that, if you have a substance abuse disorder, you are some kind of coward'

Addiction specialists and county leaders praised Harford County's recent series of anti-heroin information sessions, aimed at parents of middle-schoolers, that drew hundreds of parents and their children, bringing them face-to-face with people who have been directly touched by the county's heroin abuse epidemic.

"It really woke them up to some of the dangers that we're facing with this heroin [epidemic], and the opiates," County Executive Barry Glassman said.

His administration organized the six sessions, held between Sept. 30 and Nov. 5, in partnership with Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and his heroin work group, Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan and County Health Officer Susan Kelly.

Don Mathis, alumni relations director for Father Martin's Ashley, an addiction treatment and recovery center near Havre de Grace, called the turnout for the forums "remarkable" and said will help parents feel more comfortable addressing drug abuse and seeking treatment.

"The benefit of the middle school programs is, it's helped remove the stigma that, if you have a substance abuse disorder, you are some kind of coward or you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps," Mathis said. "Addiction changes your brain; it changes your behavior."

The information sessions packed schools across the county, as hundreds of parents, relatives and children came to hear local statistics of rising drug abuse and personal stories from parents who have lost their children.

About 1,200 people saw the presentations that featured information and statistics on heroin abuse in the count and first-hand stories from parents who have lost children to drug abuse, Joe Ryan, director of the county's Office on Drug Control Policy, said last week. Ryan moderated the forums.

"I thought the turnouts were outstanding. I think parents are finally getting the message that this is something we have to deal with," Ryan said. "We know how busy everyone's schedules are, but they took time to come out. We have gotten a lot of positive feedback."

"The schools were a great partner. Obviously, they have the students, the parents and the buildings," he said, adding that more people are getting the message "this is a public health and public safety issue."

Rates of heroin abuse, both local and nationwide, have skyrocketed in recent years, and Glassman made the issue a priority upon coming to office.

Harford law enforcement has responded to more than 150 heroin overdose calls to the county 911 center so far this year, at least 22 of them fatal.

Glassman, who personally attended two of the forums, said people have approached him in the grocery store to express their thanks to the county for holding the forums.

The county executive said Harford was ranked third in the state for the number of drug overdose deaths when he took office in late 2014. The number of deaths has been dropping in recent months, as Harford was tied for sixth as of October, he said.

"I like to say we're moving in the right direction, even in a time when this stuff has never been cheaper or more available," Glassman said.

The Sheriff's Office will announce new initiatives to fight heroin abuse at a 10:30 a.m. press conference Monday at the Southern Precinct in Edgewood. States Attorney Joseph Cassilly and several Harford state legislators will also attend to discuss future legislation as part of the initiative.

County in denial

A lot has happened since Mathis started an ad-hoc heroin task force 15 years ago.

At that time, real estate agents warned that publicizing heroin abuse would lower property values and school officials said it was only a handful of "bad kids" abusing drugs, Mathis, a recovering alcoholic who just marked 33 years of sobriety, said in a recent interview.

"Back then, there was tremendous resistance," he said. "There was a lot of denial, and it was understandable, but it was really painful."

Much of the ambivalence has died down as rates of heroin abuse have increased, however.

Glassman noted he has received some criticism after pledging to fight heroin abuse when he delivered his first State of the County speech in February.

"I'm just glad we struck to it and got the information out there," he said. "You do get a little criticism about being vocal about it and putting the family business out there, but I think it's paid off for us."

A 'winning model'

"I think the county and Joe [Ryan] and some of the other providers have a winning model here, in terms of education and prevention," Mathis said, of the cooperative approach to the forums and other local initiatives.

Glassman said representatives of other counties have asked him about the outreach program and are considering similar programs for their residents.

He put $100,000 for drug prevention and treatment initiatives in the drug control office's budget in fiscal 2016, and he plans to add more money for next year's budget. The amount has not been determined yet, though.

"I anticipate trying to increase that [funding], so we can have an even stronger presence," Glassman said.

Linda Williams, executive director of Addiction Connections Resources, a Harford based nonprofit, said Gov. Larry Hogan's heroin task force, of which she is a member, will release new recommendations by Dec. 1.

"That was one of our pushes right there, that we need to have education in the middle school," Williams said, praising the county's information sessions.

"Even children of high school age, they really don't understand drugs," she said. "They really don't know what it does to the body, what it does to the brain. Education would make a big difference, because it would help them make that choice."

Williams said parents usually do not realize their child is addicted until about two years after the addiction has set in.

"Your parents are your first line of prevention, and the more educated a parent is, the better they can intervene early, before there is a problem," she said.

Addiction Connections Resources has seen interest in its services triple from 15 years ago, although "a lot of people don't know a lot about us," Williams said. The agency now helps about 60 people annually find treatment, halfway houses or other assistance.

Expanding education, treatment

Besides targeting middle school parents and children, Mathis suggests more education is needed for health professionals, community leaders and employers to help them recognize signs of addiction.

"There is a bottom line here, that, if someone has a substance abuse disorder, they will have absenteeism, they may not be showing up. Maybe they have a 56-year-old dad who is addicted to painkillers for a back injury," Mathis said. "You have got to know how to deal with that employee's family and how to tell they need help."

Mathis said the fight against addiction depends on "whatever brings you to the table, whether you are morally compelled or you are worried about your profit margin."

Ryan and the other leaders, including Gahler, continue to do presentations around the county about the heroin epidemic. He and the Sheriff spoke to the Route 40 Republican Club last Thursday and are scheduled to speak at the Level Volunteer Fire Company Monday night.

Also, he said, "we are still working with health teachers in middle schools."

Mathis said he thinks new developments, such as use of the anti-opiate Suboxone, are helping turn the tide of heroin abuse, although both he and Williams feel the county is still in the thick of the fight.

He said factors like Suboxone are believed to be raising the recovery rate from heroin, which Ryan has touted as being only 3 percent. Mathis believes that is an old number and the percentage now is higher than 10 percent.

Ryan said Thursday, however, that no study has formally shown such increases in recovery.

Although it is too soon to say what impact the county's information sessions ultimately have, they are at least making the discussion more socially acceptable, according to Mathis and others.

"It brought some awareness to the fact of how serious this problem is, that there is an overdose a day or a couple times a week," Mathis said. "The good news is, treatment works."

Parent testimonials

A key part of the information sessions involves testimonials from parents whose children died because of their drug addictions.

Many members of the audiences have been parents and their middle school-age children, and they listen intently as parents talk about trying to help their children beat their addictions but still losing them.

"The work that those families did for us is probably better than any government program we could do," Glassman said. "That kind of personal story really touched people."

The county executive lauded those parents for their bravery in speaking about their tragedies, despite the pain.

He said he hopes to invite more parents to speak at future sessions, but the county's long-term goal "is that those people will be harder to find."

"My hope is that we begin to run out of moms and dads and brothers and sisters that are around to tell that story," Glassman said.

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