The East End is certainly not the only place in the country suffering from the nationwide opioid epidemic, but Suffolk County has the dubious distinction of being the number one county in New York State for opioid overdose deaths. This epidemic is a problem none of us here can afford to ignore.
Over the past year, we’ve heard numerous stories from parents and siblings who’ve lost their children and their brothers and sisters to opioid misuse or abuse. Some saw their loved ones fall deeper into the clutches of the disease of addiction. Some didn’t see it coming. If the heroin you are taking is laced with ultra-toxic fentanyl, the first time you use could be your last.
As leaders here debate what can be done to keep our community safe from drugs, the problem seems more daunting. The fixes that are needed are both as systemic as national health care laws and as personal as talking to your kids. The role for local government, in this case, is limited.
The U.S. President’s Commission on Combatting Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which released its first draft report in November of 2017, offers some guidance, although funding and political will to enact needed changes are always in doubt.
We’re heartened to see that Southampton Town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force is taking a wholistic approach, working with young people, law enforcement, doctors and policy makers in an attempt to bring the community together to solve this problem.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steve Skrynecki has been outspoken about his goal to save lives by ensuring that members of the public know they can call 911 in the case of a drug overdose and know the responding officers will be focused on treating addicts, not punishing them or their associates.
East End law enforcement can take much from the example of Gloucester, Mass., whose police department has been working hard to help advocate for treatment for addicts. As a seaside fishing community, Gloucester has much in common with the East End. Their police have even formed a non-profit, The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, to help train police officers all over the country to help addicts seek treatment.
We’ve heard many stories here about the difficulties addicts face when seeking treatment. Many of these stories highlight shortfalls in coverage by the private insurance industry and an inadequate number of treatment facilities.
The Peconic Care Recovery and Rehabilitation Center, a 130-bed facility proposed for the Enterprise Park at Calverton by a partnership including Northwell Health, is a hopeful step toward addressing this shortfall, as is Eastern Long Island Hospital’s expansion of its Quannacut outpatient and sober house program.
Narcotics Anonymous, an always free, peer-supported 12-step program, is expanding here, and we hope that local churches and community centers make it part of their mission to make NA welcome here. It is a vital part of the solution.
Drug users are often also dealing with underlying mental health issues — indeed, drug use is often an attempt to self-medicate these conditions.
Urgent mental health care is already a major need on the East End. With waiting lists of up to six months at insurance-qualified mental health clinics, people in need of mental health services often find a faster road to treatment is to do something reckless that lands them in an inpatient psychiatric ward, from which they can’t be discharged without access to follow-up treatment. We wouldn’t think of trying to manage other chronic health conditions through our emergency rooms. Mental health should be no different.
Fortunately, we’ve seen a lot of progress in recent years in the understanding that young people need to be properly educated at the middle to junior high school level about the dangers of drug use. It’s at this age, before teenage rebellion sets in, that young people still heed the warnings of their teachers and parents. It is senseless to wait until they have already headed down the inevitable road to rebellion to warn them about the pitfalls ahead.
The South Fork has been a place people go to party for years, but with the advent of the North Fork wine industry, the entire East End can seem to youngsters at times like a non-stop drunken and drugged wasteland. We are offering them nothing if we take part in the normalization of nonstop drinking and pill-popping.
The changes necessary are as much about what we value as a community as they are about health care laws and law enforcement procedures. Let’s break open wide that conversation, and have it all together. There is never a good time to be ashamed of who we are, and there is never a better time than now to stop the stigma and help our neighbors in need.