In the wake of two local drug-related deaths in recent months, about 70 people gathered at the Woodstock town hall on Nov. 16 to discuss how the community can address the problem of widespread drug abuse in the region. Raw pain came through as parents expressed grief, worry, and the desire to wake the community up to the gravity of the problem, while former addicts movingly described the challenges of recovery.
Health professionals, volunteers, and activists reported on programs already available, some of them underutilized, including drug rehab and counseling services of the Institute for Family Health; Family of Woodstock’s emergency shelter for teens; Twelve-Step groups; and the awareness peer counseling program. Several ideas for further remedial measures were described, including a Kingston café that will hire young people in recovery, scheduled to open in 2016. A coalition of groups that can seek grants for programming is also in the works. Activist and mother Rachel Marco-Havens proposed hiring a respected troubleshooting team to come into Ulster County schools and diagnose the underlying issues.
“We have a disconnection problem,” said Marco-Havens, co-founder of Earth Guardians NY, the local branch of a largely youth-run environmental group. “We’re not listening to the young people. We have to start working toward youth empowerment.”
She reported on a previous gathering, also in response to the overdose deaths, where local teens were asked to identify problems and express their needs. The replies, which she read off sheets of easel-sized paper, included, “Onteora doesn’t honor creativity…We want a stronger voice on how we spend our time…Parental advocation in the high school…The release of pressure to meet standards…More clubs and more support for them…Honor students are separated…Releasing of the bad-kid/teen-angst stigma…More opportunities to find like-minded peers…Address mental health issues like anxiety.”
Marco-Havens added, “Kids are taking responsibility for their friends’ problems because they don’t feel the adults are. They say you can get an eighth of coke with the right handshake any time in school. Some kids suggested early drug education.”
Dr. Ray Harvey of the Institute for Family Health (IFH) linked the drug problem to the exponential rise in prescription pain medication. He had practiced as a family doctor in Brooklyn for seven years without prescribing opiates for his patients, but he found a different set of expectations when he came to the Hudson Valley. “With the pain management culture, we’re told that whatever the patient says the pain is, that’s what their pain is,” he said. “It’s just giving them the keys to the cars.”
Drug companies are spending millions of dollars on advertising, reassuring doctors and patients that opioids such as oxycontin are not addictive. The result has been widespread dependence on pain medication, while family practitioners are required to solicit reports on pain levels as one of the measures of effective treatment.
Harvey displayed an array of statistics, including a graph that showed parallels in the rise of oxycontin sales, heroin-related deaths, and drug rehab admissions. “In the 70s, the heroin epidemic in minority communities caused 2000 deaths a year,” he observed. “In 2013, there were 9000 deaths from heroin. Now addiction hits every part of society. I believe we’ve seeded the ground for a heroin epidemic by making opioids so available. Kids in my office say, ‘My mom gave me an oxycontin for pain.’ My mom gave me a glass of milk!”
The pendulum is starting to swing the other way, with opioid prescriptions now monitored on a centralized computer system in an effort to prevent abuse. The Centers for Disease Control are modifying their guidelines for pain relief. “In our practice, all the doctors talk,” Harvey said. “We come to a consensus on what’s reasonable prescribing, which patients we can manage. We assess pain and keep evaluating the results.”
Izetta Briggs-Bolling of IFH, who has worked in the substance abuse field locally for 15 years, said adults should go through their medicine cabinets and discard any pain medication they are no longer using, before their teenagers, their kids’ friends, or other guests take the opportunity to rifle the bathroom cabinet. She advised saving coffee cans, placing medications in the cans with used coffee grinds, taping up the cans, and throwing them in the garbage. The grinds will break down and neutralize the medications, which should not be flushed down the toilet and into the water system.
John Bennett, also of IFH, said the organization offers free behavioral health clinics that will address any mental health issue including substance abuse. Counseling is available for families and individuals, even those not covered by insurance or unable to pay. They have offices in Kingston, Ellenville, New Paltz, and Hyde Park, and a substance abuse treatment program in Ellenville.
Michael Berg, director of Family of Woodstock, said the social service organization does not offer treatment but does have a 24-hour hotline that provides emergency advice and referral to services. They also run an emergency shelter in Rosendale that he described as “a safe place, no drugs allowed. It’s to help young people stabilize themselves, reconnect with their families, and find services.” Midway of Ellenville is a supervised living program for up to 18 months for adolescents aged 16 to 21 and their infants who are homeless and not yet prepared to function independently. “We support them to make changes in their life if they’re ready,” said Berg. “I don’t think you can support people who don’t want to change.”
Shock, sadness, anger
“On November 22, 2013, my son overdosed,” said Carole Kelder. “The hospital was going to release him with no plan for more treatment, until my husband and I said, ‘He needs a referral.’ In August 2015, he overdosed again and was laid on a slab. I’m a grieving parent, first in the shock stage, then the sadness stage, and now the anger stage. If you can hear me at all, that has to change. We have to work on it as a community.”
Randi Kelder also spoke about her brother, Ryan, who was launched on the path of addiction when he was prescribed Xanax, a common antidepressant, while attending college. She recalled telling him in the hospital in 2013, “’I can’t lose you.’ He said, ‘I’m ready to get help.’ But by time we were done at the hospital, he wasn’t ready any more. They didn’t give him the help he needed then and there. They said his problem wasn’t big enough to help him — the insurance company wouldn’t cover him going into rehab.”
Her father, Vince, said, “I was the one who found my son dead on the kitchen floor. I’m a person in recovery. I haven’t had a drink or drug in 19 years. When I found my son dead, I didn’t pick up a drink, due to my spiritual principles.” He credited Twelve-Step programs with rescuing him from addiction, adding, “What I realized is, my son’s experience will save lives.” Last month, Randi and Carole organized the Ryan V. Kelder Awareness Run to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston, drawing over 400 participants.
Aaron, a man in his twenties, reported on his own path through drug addiction. “From 18 to a couple years ago when I got clean, I was arrested every couple of months. I was in hospitals and rehabs, here and in Miami, and I got high the day I got out. Finally I did my time in jail and got tired of it. No one would bail me out. My mother stuck to her guns. Then I moved to another town, made new friends. All my old friends are dead, in jail, or still using. I went to a meeting every day and stayed clean.” He graduated from Twin County Recovery Services, an outpatient drug treatment program in Catskill.
He is now a volunteer with awareness, the New Paltz-based peer counseling program organized by Marie Shultis. Caitlyn, another volunteer, described it as “a safe place for youth 16 to 24 to speak openly about their feelings. We teach them about drugs and how to deal with peer pressure, talk about self-image.” Young people may attend the eight weeks of sessions whether they are dealing with drug issues or not.
Kasandra Quednau, a former addict who presently works in addiction counseling, said she and a social worker are forming a coalition to help gain access to funds. “We need a reliable volunteer base,” she said, praising the work of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, which might be sources of volunteers. She envisions a group that would link Woodstock and Saugerties to set up programs for youth.
One parent said, “I have a 21-year-old in jail. I’m glad he is, because he’s alive, but I’m scared to death about when he comes out.”
A response came from Maya Hambright, medical director of IFH’s Samaritan Village Clinic, a drug treatment program in Ellenville. She has created a not-for-profit organization that plans to open a restaurant in Kingston next year. They will be hiring youth who have been in recovery, teaching them restaurant skills and responsibilities.
Marco-Havens has been talking to Bob Stutman, a former DEA agent who visits high schools and communities with drug court judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski to speak to students, administrators, faculty, and parents. After listening to feedback from the kids, the facilitators make recommendations for a prevention program, with follow-up sessions scheduled for later in the year. This highly praised program costs $25,000, but Marco-Havens feels it would be a worthwhile investment for local school districts.
Late in the meeting, she badgered adults to stop talking long enough to encourage the students present to express themselves. When a few seconds of silence were not broken by youthful voices, she said, “We haven’t created enough trust in this room.”
Soon thereafter, a couple of teenagers spoke up, one boy asking, “Why was I doing Percocet [a prescription mix of oxycodone and acetaminophen] at the lunch table in seventh grade and never heard anything about it till tenth grade and was severely addicted? Why isn’t that being broadcast?”
A girl concurred, “What about preventing it?”
A teacher reported that the DARE drug education program, formerly in place in elementary and middle schools, was discontinued due to lack of funding and a concern by parents that teaching kids about drugs was making the drugs more attractive. “If kids are saying this is what we need,” she said, “I will take that back to my district and say this is what you’re asking for.”
Vince Kelder summarized the issue: “This is an epidemic. If you’re not touched by it in some way, you’re either really blessed, or you’re in denial.”