This week’s 2019 Evelyn Hayes Innovations in Healthcare Symposium continued the important discussion that started last fall on the challenges facing Delaware in fighting and preventing opioid addiction. It is a topic worthy of continued talks, especially since more than 30,000 adults and 9,000 adolescents in Delaware are estimated to suffer with mental illness or drug addiction. Last year there were more than 400 overdose deaths in Delaware, up 45 percent from 2017.

“Every 22 hours someone is dying from an opioid death overdose,” Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long told the audience gathered in the audion for the afternoon symposium, entitled, “Substance Abuse and Addiction: Looking at the Current Landscape and Envisioning the Future Through Different Lenses.”

Panelists discussed some of the challenges facing those in recovery from substance use disorder, including a lack of available treatment beds in the state, barriers to employment and the need for additional funding for prevention, intervention and post-treatment. One of the biggest hurdles, panelists agreed, is the stigma, which affects not just the person with addiction, but their loved ones as well. 

“Stigma keeps people from getting treatment. You need to provide opportunities for those who need it,” said Don Keister, founder of AtTAcK Addiction, whose son, Tyler, died from an accidental overdose. “It has to be immediate and have a number of levels. It needs a continuum of care. I think people are trying to work toward that. But we’re still not getting the word out to the people who need the word.” 

Dr. Sandy Gibney, an emergency doctor at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, said there has been a change in culture within her emergency department in recent years. Along with prescribing fewer opioid medications, there’s a focus on being less punitive and providing more medical help to those in active addiction – just like they treat patients with a chronic physical condition like diabetes. At the same time, additional resources, including the state’s use of the OpenBeds platform, which makes available the number and location of available treatment beds in the state, has helped emergency providers get more people into addiction treatment. 

“Once they get to the ER, we should work to get folks into treatment, make them feel welcome, make them feel like there’s help,” said Gibney, a UD alum who also goes out in a mobile health van to bring needed medical care to the community. “Moving forward, we have so many opportunities outside the ED in the hospital environment. It they have abscesses, bacterial infections, we want them to be treated appropriately while they are hospital patients.”

There still are challenges even when people are in recovery, including finding employment that will allow them to be stable members of the community, said Josh Thomas, executive director of NAMI Delaware. There has been talk of creating a resource fair to help connect people in recovery with employers who are willing to hire them. 

“People in recovery need to be able to get back to work. They need some help how to have a conversation with a potential employer. Maybe they have an employment gap,” Thomas said. “We need to talk about building relationships with potential employers.” 

Stephanie King was a college student at the University of Delaware when she was prescribed opiates in the hospital for stomach pain. That began a spiral into opiate addiction that ended after King went to rehab. Today, she is in long-term recovery and works with men in prison who are struggling with their own addictions.  

“I go to work so I can help people. We do need help. We are dying,” King said. “We are human beings. We’re not just homeless people in the streets. We need help. I’m just a normal person. I was a good kid growing up.”

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