Attendees at the First Friday Club of Cleveland program on Oct. 4 heard a discussion of the opioid abuse epidemic from a variety of perspectives and learned that substance abuse remains a major issue locally and beyond.
Moderator Bob Klubert from Medical Mutual spoke about the issue from the perspective of a health insurer, explaining the huge scope of the problem. He said millions of people are addicted to opioids and thousands of people visit emergency rooms daily because of misuse or overdose of the drugs. It is a $53 billion burden on the economy, he said, and even more unsettling is the fact that Ohio ranks second in deaths from opioid overdoses.
Klubert said it also is disconcerting to see people making money from the opioid epidemic, leaving some people with excessive charges and lacking quality care.
“We’re doing things to try to make an impact,” Klubert said, explaining that monitoring takes place so people don’t “shop” for doctors, prescription refills are closely watched and treatment methods are scrutinized. He said Medical Mutual is working with the attorney general’s task force to try and address the situation from a health insurance perspective.
Panelists were Maureen Dee, executive director of treatment, prevention and recovery services, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland; Marvin, a graduate of one of Catholic Charities’ programs; Diane Zbasnik, who heads the diocesan Social Action Office; and Todd DeKatch, a supervisory special agent with the FBI and co-commander of a task force with the Cleveland Police Department that is tackling the epidemic locally.
DeKatch shared sobering statistics that illustrated how quickly the opioid epidemic grew. In 2009, when the task force began tracking statistics, there were 29 overdose deaths in the area. Within four years – by 2013 – that number had jumped to 243. “We knew it would only get worse,” DeKatch said.
He describes Cleveland as a consumer city rather than a hub city, which can make the problem more difficult to fight. Drugs are readily available, he said, but since Cleveland isn’t a hub, we don’t attract huge shipments that can be seized. The problem here is more pervasive. He said each law enforcement agency has a task force dealing with heroin and opioid abuse. At first, he said the task force would go to every overdose but it was straining resources. They also found little or no cooperation from victims of non-fatal overdoses who feared losing their suppliers. Also, the families and friends of those who died from overdoses felt stigmatized and often destroyed evidence like cell phones and needles, which made things harder for law enforcement investigations.
In a bizarre twist, DeKatch said sometimes a non-fatal overdose would be seen as an advertisement for addicts that the supplier “had good stuff.” He said people don’t know what to expect when going from a pill to heroin and the introduction of synthetic drugs that are more powerful is making the problem even tougher to fight.
Dee spoke from a treatment perspective and said substance abuse is treatable and Catholic Charities offers a variety of programs to help those fighting these demons. There are 111 beds available through the Matt Talbot program, which is a structured substance abuse program named after an Irish man who battled alcoholism beginning in his teens. Locally, Father Berard Scarborough founded the Matt Talbot program in 1965. Although originally a treatment program for men, there now is a parallel program for women that began in 1999.
“We have extensive outpatient programs in addition to the residential programs,” Dee said. She noted that substance abuse and addiction problems plague both men and women regardless of education or economic standing.
Marvin, a graduate of one of those programs, shared his story and explained how he was well on his way to becoming an alcoholic in 2010 when he started abusing Percocet.
“The pills let me drink the way I wanted to and still get up in the morning,” he said. But his problem spiraled out of control and he was always seeking ways to sneak away from work or to get cash to buy more pills. “If a friend called and wanted to go out for a drink, I couldn’t say no,” he said.
After much hard work, he was able to regain his sobriety. “I work hard to stay sober. I learned that I can’t keep my sobriety unless I give it away,” he said. “I know it sounds strange, but it’s true.”
Marvin said he “gives away his sobriety” by volunteering with Alcoholics Anonymous and speaking to Matt Talbot clients. “I do as much service work as I can. That’s how it works. I put God and others ahead of myself and take it one day at a time to stay sober.”
He said addiction is a disease that changes your brain. He compared it to “playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun. The obsession is so strong that you’re powerless,” he explained,
After six years of addiction, Marvin said he was near the end. That and some family experiences led to his recovery.
Zbasnik spoke from the spiritual perspective and quoted the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”
She said faith can be a strong support system for those struggling with substance abuse issues, as well as their families and friends, adding that spirituality is how the Church can respond to the crisis.
Each human life is important and every human being deserves dignity, Zbasnik said. “We may have people suffering in silence. Addiction has a stigma. People may feel abandoned, like they’ve lost their dignity. And their families and friends may feel this way, too,” she said.
Zbasnik recalled getting a phone call from a woman whose son had left several different treatment programs. The mother begged her to help get him to a detoxification program. Zbasnik said it was difficult to tell the mother that she could not do anything, but she could assist the mother in getting help for herself. The son needed to be willing to accept help and participate in treatment or it would not work for him.
“We need to be a people of hope and a people of light as God calls us to be,” Zbasnik said.
Teaching people to avoid the risky behaviors that can lead to substance abuse is a key to stemming the problem. But she said people also need to know that they are not alone – there are people who will walk with them.
“The Church is a safe place to find support and love – not judgment,” she added.
The next First Friday Club of Cleveland meeting will be a breakfast buffet 7:30-9 a.m. Nov. 1 at The City Club of Cleveland, 850 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Guest speaker will be Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. CARA is a nonprofit research center, founded in 1964, that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. His topic will be “Catholics in America: 1958-2018.”
Cost is $25. For more information or reservations, call 216-696-2582. Reservations are required; deadline is noon Oct. 29.