Opioid crisis boils down to social
connections, Sanpete officials decide
MANTI—When state and local leaders got together last week in Manti to talk about the opiate crisis, it didn’t take long for the conversation to shift from drugs to underlying issues, such as mental health, transitional housing and social isolation of people who are abusing drugs.
“It’s all about connections,” Kevin Daniels, Sanpete County attorney, said. “The more partners we can engage to have a connected community, the more success we’re going to have.”
The gathering on Thursday, July 12 at the Sheriff’s Complex was organized by Randy Parker, state director of USDA Rural Development with offices in Salt Lake City. Accompanying him was Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
Among the attendees were mayors, police chiefs and other law enforcement officers from around the county; staff from the Central Utah Counseling Center; and even representatives from the Sanpete County chapter of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
Parker explained why he, a federal rural development official, is getting involved. His agency, he said, is committed to rural resilience. “When people are employed, productive and connected, they are less likely to be pulled into opiate addiction.”
Atty. Gen. Reyes is involved in a class action suit that states and many counties are filing against drug companies claiming the companies failed to inform, or misinformed, physicians and the public about the dangers of opiate prescription drugs, leading to an explosion of overdose deaths.
Parker brought a report commissioned by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. It showed that in 2014-15, the last year for which figures are available, there were 10 deaths in Sanpete County attributable to opiates.
He said he has a friend who lives in the Gunnison Valley who lost a daughter to opiate use. When he asked him what led to her problems, the father said his daughter suffered from depression and anxiety.
“How do we bring that into closer alignment, so we can address the issues of mental health at the same time as the self-medicating and the problems associated with misuse?” he asked.
Central Utah Counseling officials responded that there is too much pigeonholing of people by diagnosis, rather than treating people for their multiple problems.
Farrel Marx, chief financial officer for the counseling center, said funding is increasingly “siloed” by diagnosis, which can mean a person with a multiple diagnosis is not eligible for treatment.
Even though county commissioners are supposed to be the mental health authority within a county, “there’s more and more control being exerted at the state level, because any more, they want to know where the money is going and what results they are paying for,” he said. He called for giving county commissions more authority to move money around.
“We don’t have enough access to mental health in rural Utah, especially for the underinsured and Medicaid patients,” said Mayor Lori Nay of Gunnison, who sometimes helps out in her husband’s medical practice.
It can take 30 days for such a patient to get into a gastroenterologist, she said. It takes six months to get someone in for mental health care.
The participants also talked about how to get drug users, especially people who get arrested, into treatment.
Law enforcement officials said the Sanpete County Jail is pretty much a revolving door. About the longest someone can be held after arrest is over a weekend. Frequently, users have enough money from drug activity to bail out.
Users who are jailed are often terrified of going into withdrawal. “They want to get out of jail as fast as they can because they know they’re going to get dope sick,” Chief Brett McCall of the Gunnison Valley Police Department said.
And, mental health officials noted, there is no facility offering detoxification in the Six-County Area. So if people can’t get out, they withdraw from opiates in jail.
“The only thing we do now is make sure they’re hydrated,” said Tonya Castro, of the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office, who directs a drug treatment program in the jail. She described the current approach as “scary.”
Several officials at the meeting said the main keys to helping addicts are social acceptance and practical things like housing and jobs.
Atty. Gen. Reyes said Utahns “need to stop thinking of addicts as sinners or weak” but rather regard them as “people with a debilitating disease.”
Deputy Jeff Greenwell, Sanpete County probation officer, whose case load consists heavily of people charged with drug use, said, “There’s a lack of perceived social support..” If families and friends reject addicts, “they withdraw from their social supports and cycle down until they hit bottom.”
“We stigmatize, we isolate, we push them away,” said Nathan Strait, clinical director of the Central Utah Counseling Center. “When our children might be friends with someone who is a little on the fringes, we try to pull them away…We ostracize when we should be embracing.”
Crystal Sidwell, case manager for the Sanpete County Drug Court, said the biggest need for people trying to clean up a drug problem is transitional housing.
“When they get out of jail, they don’t have anyone to call on anymore because they’ve burned all their bridges,” she said.
Counseling center staff said the nearest women’s shelter is in Richfield, a two-hour round trip, and there’s nothing close at all for men.
Parker made the point that opiate abuse can strike anywhere. In fact, tt has hit his own family, he said. Two days before he was to help stage a national roundtable on opiate abuse, he learned his 38-year-old daughter, who has suffered from anxiety and depression, had an opiate problem.
“I thought I was a fairly educated person, but I was blindsided,” he said. Even after six months, he said, “I’m still at a loss as a parent to know how to help, I really am….She’s in our prayers all the time.” As a parent to know how to help, I really am….She’s in our prayers all the time.”