By Emma Fabian
Each morning I pick up a newspaper or log on to peruse online articles, and many of the headlines are about substance use. To be fair, it’s my professional responsibility to stay well versed on the topic, so I am particularly drawn to these stories. But I have a feeling that most Western New Yorkers these days would have to actually work to be unaware of the lack of treatment beds, the trend of heroin laced with deadly fentanyl or the stretches of days wherein Erie County lost 11 and 23 people.
These epidemic proportions are enough to make some wonder: is the world becoming increasingly unstable or do we just have more mechanisms for noticing instabilities that have been around for a long time?
This country has not historically confronted drug use effectively; most drug policies have failed and adversely affected marginalized communities and people of color. Couple that with the tragic number of lives lost in Western New York recently, and it’s not surprising people read headlines perplexedly.
In the face of this opiate crisis, Western New York and communities across the country have the opportunity – responsibility, really – to adopt the kind of paradigm shift that led to decreased HIV/AIDS transmissions during the 1980s and 1990s and helped people live longer, healthier lives. A shift of this magnitude involves addressing programming, policy and public opinion. This country did not get through the height of the HIV crisis by perpetuating the same types of traditional treatments despite low outcomes, refusing to fund alternative types of care and stigmatizing individuals as moral failures.
In actuality, we are already on a path toward a more effective response to substance use here. Harm reduction, substance use treatment that reduces the negative consequences associated with drug use, is becoming more recognized as a viable option. Every day at Evergreen Health, staff and participants demonstrate how harm reduction can help change and save lives. The agency is home to a large syringe exchange program and recently received funding from the state Department of Health to implement a substance user health hub. This, in and of itself, is a big step forward for the community. Furthermore, Erie County has developed a productive task force addressing the opiate epidemic.
If stakeholders in our community continue to think outside the box and forget cookie-cutter mentalities, we will get through, as we have before.
Today at 6 p.m., Evergreen Health will lead a public event at 67 Prospect Ave. to remember clients and community members who have passed away from overdoses and raise awareness about services many may not know about.
Emma Fabian is director of substance user health policy at Evergreen Health of Buffalo.