Brenda Simonson has taught a class called "Drugs and Society" for 15 years at Niagara County Community College.
The opiate crisis has made the last few years the most challenging.
Last semester, as the number of overdose deaths continued to alarm the region, Simonson decided to take a different tack with students in the course. She asked them to put together an inventory of positive steps that were being taken across the country to address the disease of addiction.
"We wanted to turn back the idea that people who struggle with addiction and mental health are without hope," said Simonson, professor of health and physical education, and Health Studies Program coordinator at NCCC.
The course has become one of the more popular on the Sanborn campus. Simonson regularly fills three classes, each with a cap of 32 students. Criminal justice, nursing and other health-related majors tend to make up the bulk of those who enroll.
Most students have embraced the challenge to discover effective treatment prospects as they are encouraged by Simonson and bolstered by data provided by Jeff Hickman, a former auto worker, an NCCC Health Studies graduate, and part-time technical assistant for his former college program.
No student stepped up to the challenge more than Kate Lorish, of Lockport, a recovering addict who has been sober for 28 years. She finished her course work last December on her way to becoming a certified alcoholism and substance abuse counselor.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, developed in Seattle in 2011, is the most intriguing course discovery to Lorish, Hickman and Simonson. Police are encouraged to steer drug-addled suspects in petty crimes into treatment to avoid arrest.
The Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force has for a year studied the prospect of implementing the program to the south of NCCC.
Lorish, as a member of the Niagara County Opiate Task Force Law Enforcement Subcommittee, is leading the charge in the county with from help her former teacher, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in the sciences from SUNY Brockport. They will share information about the approach during the college open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Q: How does LEAD work?
Simonson: When the person is found under the influence, they have options. It's not always going to be about going to jail. They can get help from Social Services, a place to sleep that night. Sometimes, they get help finding an apartment, getting a job. Generally speaking, those people end up in jail and nothing happens. Seattle has gone above and beyond in terms of finding treatment. It's quite the collaboration among not only law enforcement but the DA, Social Services, people working in the addictions field who have been in recovery many, many years. It's been a remarkably successful program.
Lorish: Immediately, they are assigned a caseworker. They have 30 days to decide to become involved in LEAD. If not, they're arrested. It's breaking down recidivism. It's looking at the human being and looking at what they need instead of just looking at the crime. So instead of just pruning the tree, they're getting down to the root.
Simonson: I'm very convinced this county and Erie County are very capable of doing this but you have to have an orchestra leader, somebody who doesn't have to play all the instruments but knows enough to keep it all going.
Q: How are people in the law enforcement community embracing the LEAD idea?
Simonson: The thing that's always hard is the question, "Can we sustain this financially?" Some of the best initiatives out there have stopped because the grant ran out. This could change law enforcement. It could be small changes in some places and maybe more significant changes in other places. Brooklyn has LEAD. Albany has it. It would be nice to see Niagara County step up and be a strong entity.
Hickman: Everything is about money so, at the end of the day, you've got to show people where the cost savings is going to be. LEAD can show that.
Q: What else have you and the students discovered?
Simonson: Alternative and complimentary approaches. They came up with examples of people who have found relief from their cravings by doing some of the simplest things. Sometimes it's deep tissue massage. Sometimes it's going back to their love for horses or any kind of animals. … There's also a tremendous number of resources available free to people, including Addict 2 Addict (836-2726).
We need to make an all-out effort to educate, age-appropriately, with the best educators we have. The problem in this subject is that a lot of teachers don't know a lot about it, so they're not comfortable talking about it. Parents are not, either. Parents have this attitude that "My kid will never do that, because they know better." That's not always the case."
Relapse rate of teens trying to stay sober is about 70 percent, but it's 28 percent for those who participate in Sobriety High Schools. With all the closed schools all over, even the smallest ones, what a business opportunity that could be.
Niagara County Jail has a mental health unit. … Now, when a person comes into this program, if they're homeless, have a mental health issue or drug addiction, everything is getting addressed that needs to be addressed. We want people to become healthy and live their lives, and not feel they have nowhere to go.
Overall, the approach needs to be comprehensive. It's not one size fits all for addictions recovery.
Q: Where is Niagara County in terms of addiction and where do you think needs to happen next?
Lorish: We need things that work and we need it geared to our needs. We don't have enough places to send people for recovery and we don't have enough follow-up through recovery. Those with addictions have to be accountable. They do. But there's also a lot more mental illness and other diseases that need to be addressed.
Hickman: There also have to be a change in the mindset of the officers who have first contact. They can't see them how they see them now.
Q: Is it rewarding to see that what you're teaching in the classroom is having an impact in the community?
Simonson: It's exciting. It's invigorating a lot of time. My emphasis is trying to have a better understanding of how this happens, any kind of drug addiction. It doesn't have to just be opiates. Most people don't have an understanding of the dynamics of the brain and the dynamics of the environment. This is the one thing the National Institute of Drug Abuse says. You know what, and we didn't look at this seriously, the environment where people are raised matters. If they're raised in very stressful, poverty driven – or even stressful, very wealthy – families, it's the same level (of trauma).