A Community in Crisis Comes TogetherMay 15, 2015
by Laurie Jasper
The statistics are scary. From 2013-2014, 321 people in New Hampshire died from drug overdoses, according to the Center for Disease Control. Hudson community members and professionals met recently to address this growing crisis head on.
On Wednesday evening, May 6, more than 80 people gathered in the band room of Alvirne High School to participate in “Heroin in Hudson – A Community Discussion – What You Should Know and What You Can Do.” The event was sponsored jointly by the New Hampshire Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services , the Hudson Fire Department, the Hudson Police Department, the Greater Nashua Public Health Advisory Council and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The program began with a welcome by moderator Lisa Vasquez, substance misuse prevention coordinator for Nashua Division of Public Health and Community Services, who then introduced keynote speaker Timothy Rourke, chair of the Governor’s Commission on Substance Abuse Prevention, Intervention and Treatment and director of Substance Use Disorders Grant Making and Strategic Initiatives for the NHCF. Rourke began by explaining that the NHCF is a philanthropic organization set up over 50 years ago, and is one of the largest charitable foundations in the country. Its initiatives range from the arts to the environment, and the NHCF has made a commitment to reduce substance use by New Hampshire’s youth and increase access to treatment.
Rourke’s PowerPoint shared many startling statistics. According to the Center for Disease Control, the mortality rate for NH 2013-2014 lists 321 deaths due to drug overdose, 170 due to breast cancer and 138 due to motor vehicle accidents. In 2014, Narcan was administered 3,275 times in New Hampshire to overturn an overdose. Narcan is a prescription opiate antidote that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.
According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2011 NSDUH), “New Hampshire has some of the highest rates of alcohol use, marijuana use and non-medical use of pain relievers among youth, young adults, and adults.”
“The good news is you are not alone, the bad news is you’re no different than anyone in this state,” Rourke said to the crowd. “New Hampshire is one of the healthiest states in the nation, and considered one of the best states to raise children. There are exceptions to that rule,” Rourke said. New Hampshire has some of the highest rates of addiction, including ranking 4th highest out of 50 states in the past year for alcohol or drug dependence in the age range of 12-17. The discussion also included other addictions.
“Addiction is a disease of the brain,” stated Rourke. “Alcohol kills more people than any other drug combined. We have an acute crisis right now with a very bad drug (heroin) that is crippling many in the state.”
In addition to focusing on lives lost to drug addiction and the devastation to families, Rourke pointed out the social and economic impacts, some more obvious than others. Rourke explained that many addicts can’t work, but also their addiction affects the absentee rates of their spouse or caregivers, many positions in the workforce go unfilled when workers can’t pass a drug test, healthcare costs rise and public safety is at risk. There has been an increase in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which occurs when babies are born to addicted mothers, and hospitals are re-designing their neonatal units in response to this increase. It is a very costly intervention to help the baby, and with the majority on Medicaid, the public pays those costs.
“Heroin is very difficult to treat. It is a real challenge to find recovery,” Rourke said. “However, I remain optimistic we are very close to doing significant work to alleviate this problem in the state.”
Rourke noted the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention and Treatment (“the Commission”) was established by the state legislature in 2000 and has produced a detailed strategy called Collective Action-Collective Impact. (http://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dcbcs/bdas/documents/collectiveaction.pdf).
He also discussed the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that was established in 2014 to allow prescribers across the state to view prescription data for their patients and help detect abuse and the Prescription Drug Box Initiative, with locations at police stations around the state where people may anonymously drop off unused, outdated prescription drugs safely and securely. The Hudson Police Department participates in this initiative. Rourke also noted that the Affordable Care Act has a rule that insurance plans must now cover mental health and substance abuse treatments at the same level as regular medical care. “There is treatment and it does work. When administered at the right level and the right time there is a 60-80 percent success rate,” Rourke said.
“We must get multiple stakeholders together. We can’t arrest our way out of it and we can’t treat our way out of it. Take existing resources and sustain the effort over time, and build communities to set norms that are different,” concluded Rourke.
Next, Timothy Rourke presented a video of a teen named Alex. The next eight minutes and 46 seconds of Alex’s very personal testimony caused several in attendance to be overcome with emotion. Some even had to leave the room. No summary here will replace Alex’s poignant story: visit www.CheckTheStatsNH.org click Media Center and then click Alex’s Story to see the video in its entirety.
Alex told the crowd he came from a nice family, was in Cub Scouts, sports and had no problems. “When I got to middle school … my life started changing,” Alex shared. He said that he started out as a recreational marijuana smoker, that one of his friends asked if he wanted to try it. He went from smoking once a month or so to every day, and then he said he did, “… whatever I could do to get messed up.” His drug use progressed to Percocet then heroin, which he snorted, smoked and then eventually used intravenously.
“My parents never directly told me about the dangers of drugs, because my parents assumed I knew not to do drugs so they didn’t tell me ‘don’t do drugs.’ Kids need to hear there is more to life than drugs … there are no winners when you use drugs. Parents also need to know that they can’t just ignore it. It’s not going to go away on its own,” Alex said. “On my 18th birthday I was admitted to my first rehab.”
At the conclusion of Alex’s story, eight panel members took their seats at the front of the room and introduced themselves one by one. The first person to speak was Rosemary Smith-Berry, who introduced herself as Alex’s mom, which was met with applause. She then told the crowd they live in Hudson, and Alex graduated from Alvirne High School last year. She said that Alex wished he could have been there that night, but he had to work. She said he made the video when he was 90 days clean and he has been 478 days in recovery. He is a freshman at Southern New Hampshire University and works two jobs.
“Alex is a success story, a survival story, but I will always worry. I like to say he’s in remission,” said Smith-Berry. “I share my story; then people share their stories. I want to get the word out there. It is so helpful to talk about it. I felt so alone in the beginning,” said Smith-Berry. “One profound thing he [Alex] said was his parents didn’t tell him not to do drugs. We relied a lot on the school system, health classes,” she said, as others in the crowd nodded.
Other panel members were Alex Hamel from Keystone Hall in Nashua, a 52-bed facility with 28-day, 90-day programs and for postpartum women and babies; Deputy Chief Scott Tice from the Hudson Fire Department; Sergeant Jason Lucontoni from the Hudson Police Department; Sheila Considine from Merrimack River Medical Services; Ed McDonough from Gate House Sober Community; Susan Allen from F.A.S.T.E.R. Support Group for families; and Vahrij Manoukian, a pharmacist at Hollis Pharmacy whose son died ten years ago from a drug overdose.
Each member of the panel spoke, and many shared very personal stories about how drugs and alcohol have affected their families. Ed McDonough said he was an athlete who got hooked on oxycodone. “Everyone on the staff (of Gate House) is in recovery,” he said. He has dedicated himself to helping others and offering hope. In addition to the two locations, Gate House also offers intensive outpatient services.
Vahrij Manoukian spoke with emotion as he talked of his late son. “He was 24 years old. I pull in [to the cemetery] to say good morning and pull in at night to say goodnight. Try to live your life knowing your son is dead. Every person in this room is being affected directly or indirectly. Before you are in my shoes, go help someone. In my son’s memory, if I save a single life … Maybe God gave me the strength to speak about this,” Manoukian said.
Following the panel’s introductions, the public was invited to ask questions. The first to speak was Hudson’s Superintendent of Schools Bryan Lane. Throughout his over 35 years in education, he has attended the funerals of 42 students, with 17 of those attributed to substance abuse. He said this is the first year the district has employed an at-risk coordinator, who works closely with the district’s drop out task force. “No one is immune. It is a disease. If you need some help, you know where to find me. I’ll be there,” concluded Lane.
For the rest of the evening, audience members bravely shared their own stories, and some asked questions of the panel. “My son is an addict,” said one mother, whose son has relapsed. Next, “T” shared he graduated from Alvirne in the 1980s and is an alcoholic and addict, now in recovery. “I was just like Alex,” he said. “T” now speaks at various meetings and said there is hope. Another audience member implored, “Parents, don’t give up. Participate in the recovery.”
Another women shared that her daughter, who would have been 36 this May, passed away in 2001 from the drug Ecstasy. Her son is currently in drug treatment out of state, and she was going to visit him for Mother’s Day.
“I have a 15 year old and I don’t know how to talk to her. How do I approach her?” asked another audience member. “Start the conversation and be honest. Talk to your ten year olds now. Adolescents are risk takers, educate yourselves,” said panelist Susan Allen. She added there are great resources out there on how to start a discussion, including at www.DrugFreeNH.org.
With tears, another audience member spoke about her son, sharing their family’s heartbreaking story. “Please listen to what Alex is saying. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. And clean out your medicine cabinets,” she said.
The recent announcement by the Gloucester, Mass., Police Department that anyone who comes to the police department and turns in their drug items will not be arrested but will be given immediate help toward recovery was on the minds of several in the audience, and was discussed.
Deputy Chief Tice wants to draw some attention to the problem and get more people to help find a solution. “As an EMS in Hudson, we respond out and see the people and the families it does affect,” said Tice. The Hudson Fire Department does carry Narcan, but the Hudson Police do not, a fact that Alex’s sister said she would like to see changed. “Why shouldn’t the police have Narcan? I would want to carry it,” said Alex’s sister. Sgt. Lucontoni replied, “From my standpoint, we [Hudson] have a full-time fire department. They are the experts. But, I’m not against it.”
Smith-Berry said the event that night is the first to begin building a Hudson/Litchfield Coalition, and asked people to sign up to participate. “I think we’ve put a little bit of light and a little bit of hope tonight. Real change happens at the community level. Thank you for coming tonight,” concluded Vasquez.
Alex Tells his Story
Rosemary Smith-Berry shared with the Hudson~Litchfield News that her son, Alex, an Alvirne graduate and a recovering drug addict, is busy completing his freshman year at SNHU and working two jobs. For the next several weeks, he will be visiting area schools with Plymouth State University’s TIGER (Theater Integrating Guidance, Education, and Responsibility) team.
PSU’s TIGER is a non-profit professional theater company that travels throughout New Hampshire performing at schools and bringing focus on how to deal with social issues, like bullying and friendships, through dynamic music, puppets, dance, interaction and positive messages. TIGER has written a one-act play about Alex’s story. After the play (someone else plays Alex), Alex will speak to the audience about his message.
“Alex is committed to helping others,” said his proud mom.