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City task force gauging heroin treatment needs

Baltimore's heroin task force begins its work.

All around us, people struggle daily with problems brought on by substance use disorders — in rural, suburban and urban communities, including in Baltimore. The human, financial and emotional costs are enormous.

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Fortunately, there is growing attention to the issue in Baltimore, with a concentrated focus on heroin use. A key effort in this is the task force created last fall by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to develop a strategy for strengthening the city's behavioral health system to ensure that treatment is both effective and available to those in need.

The task force began by calculating the scope of Baltimore's heroin problem and estimating the number of people who use the drug. Using the best available data, the task force has estimated that about 18,900 people use heroin in a year. As we continue to examine the data and scope of the challenge, that number may stay the same or change.

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We already know a lot about what it takes to address addiction, but we are looking carefully at our existing treatment system to make sure the right options and processes are in place consistently across Baltimore.

For instance, although it is a scientifically demonstrated fact that certain kinds of treatment (including medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine) are effective for many people when properly provided, we are examining whether all individuals receiving such treatment are being cared for appropriately. We suspect that some are receiving the wrong treatment, incomplete treatment or treatment for longer than is needed.

We know that there are many individuals in treatment in our city, and we suspect that there are many more who need treatment but aren't getting it. The task force will work to better understand the scope of the unmet treatment need. Our recommendations will include clear ideas about how we can achieve our goal of ensuring access to treatment for those who need it.

Aside from the urgent need to strengthen and expand our treatment system, we must also do a better job of combating prejudice against people struggling with substance use. Similarly, we know that some organizations in the community that serve substance users have less than positive relationships with their residential and business neighbors.

These negative perceptions and relationships hinder our systemic effort to provide effective treatment that can help people end their use of addictive substances, and the task force hopes to develop recommendations for improving public understanding and decreasing prejudice against those with substance use disorders. We will also consider ways to improve relationships between treatment providers, patients and the surrounding community.

Substance use is a daunting public health challenge. Addressing it will require a concerted, comprehensive and coordinated approach. We believe the task force will help bring the city together to understand the nature and scope of the problem, help put aside our differences and prejudices, make available the treatments that work and be willing to identify and discard those that do not.

We look forward to the day when our good will, comprehensive planning, cooperation and hard work will lead us to an ever better Baltimore City, where few citizens look to substance use for relief and those who do can get effective assistance quickly.

Our goal is to help Baltimore be a place where resources go to treatments and support services that work and where neighbors respect each other and find ways to support those struggling to escape from the problems brought on by substance use.

Bernard J. McBride is the president and CEO for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the nonprofit organization that oversees Baltimore City's behavioral health system — the system of care that addresses emotional health and well-being and provides services for substance use and mental health disorders. His email address is Bernard.McBride@bhsbaltimore.org.

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