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Jun 4, 2018 5:45 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Opioid Task Force Fights Stigma

Matthew Omlor, the outpatient clinical supervisor at Long Island Center for Recovery in Hampton Bays, is on the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force. DANA SHAW
Jun 5, 2018 11:46 AM

Matthew Omlor, the outpatient clinical supervisor at Long Island Center for Recovery in Hampton Bays, said he sees patients—or prospective patients—battling the stigma surrounding opioid addiction every day.

The notion of shame or disgrace that often surrounds those affected by the opioid crisis is among the largest hurdles to clear when looking to solve the regional problem, according to multiple experts.

“We need to be able to reach people and help people understand that it doesn’t mean a person is a bad person,” Mr. Omlor said of people battling the disease of addiction or substance abuse. “It means that a person has a problem that they got help for, and that they are doing something about it.”

He also has firsthand experience.

Mr. Omlor, a longtime Manorville resident, had his first taste of nicotine when he was 12 years old—a decision that would eventually lead him, he says, on a dark path leading to opioid addiction.

Sitting in his Montauk Highway office, Mr. Omlor said he never thought he would become a drug addict. But he enjoyed smoking cigarettes, and as he entered his teenage years, his substance of choice upgraded to alcohol and, soon, marijuana. Before he knew it, the self-described “naive teen” found himself at a party being offered a Vicodin, a narcotic pain killer. His friends convinced him it would be a better high.

But the Vicodin pills quickly turned him to other highly addictive narcotics—and, eventually, heroin.

Mr. Omlor, age 16 at the time, said he knew doing heroin was wrong, but he fell for the sales pitch: It would be cheaper than Vicodin, he would get the same high, and he could get the drug in his system without using needles.

Looking back, Mr. Omlor, now 27, said he still remembers the “pit” in his stomach the day he was offered heroin for the first time. “Once I switched to heroin,” he said, “it was game over.”

Mr. Omlor reclaimed his life after he ultimately landed in a long-term addiction recovery program. After two years of treatment, he returned to his Manorville home, drug free.

His transformation was an incredible feat. At one time, his drug use made him appear to be the bad kid in the neighborhood who parents wanted to stay away from their children; today, parents seek him out to help their own children who have found themselves down a similar, dark path.

“Anybody, no matter what your circumstances are, no matter how helpless you feel, can live a life in recovery,” said Mr. Omlor.

Mr. Omlor, who has a master’s degree in social work, said he is sharing his story—and sitting on Southampton Town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force—to try to put a stop to the crisis derailing the lives of people nationwide every day.

At a Southampton Town Board work session on June 21, members of the task force will present a series of recommendations for the Town Board to put into place to provide an effective local response to the opioid crisis.

In Southampton Town alone, there were 19 deaths from opioid addiction in 2017, according to Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. The town is a smaller screenshot of a larger regional crisis: Suffolk County reported approximately 400 opioid deaths in 2017.

“It would take me more than an hour to write down the names of the people I personally know who died of opioids,” Mr. Omlor said.

One positive sign: There has been only one opioid-related death in Southampton so far in 2018.

It Takes A Village

As the tally of deaths continued to climb in 2017, doctors, educators and law enforcement alike found themselves continuously shaking their heads. How do you put a stop to the opioid crisis?

After pondering this question last fall, Mr. Schneiderman called up Drew Scott, a former News 12 Long Island anchor whose 22-year-old granddaughter was a victim of the opioid war last year, to kickstart a new program together: the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force.

Mr. Scott’s granddaughter, Hallie Ulrich, a graduate of Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, was found dead of an overdose on the grassy shoulder of Alewife Brook Road in East Hampton on the morning of September 7, 2017, not far from where she had been camping at Cedar Point County Park with her boyfriend, Michael Goericke, 28, and another friend.

Mr. Goericke, who grew up in Water Mill and attended school in Southampton, died of an overdose the next day at his mother’s house in Flanders.

The members of the town’s task force—it also includes Ms. Ulrich’s mom, Sally Gillies, and cousin, 16-year-old Mackenzie Jenkins—are determined to get to the crux of the region’s opioid crisis and find a solution.

The task force is broken down into four committees: law enforcement, education, recovery, and treatment. Since its formation late last year, the committees have each met several times to discuss solutions it will ultimately recommend to the Town Board later this month.

According to Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, the task force is already proving effective, citing the fact that there has been only one fatal overdose so far this year. “Only one is obviously too many,” he said. “But I think the task force is making positive results.”

Southampton’s effort is creating a ripple effect, as other areas on Long Island begin adopting their own task forces.

“We’ve been participating in their task force to get a feel of what they’re doing, and to decide what we can do and bring over here,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.

She said usually, herself, or someone from the Town Police Department, or both, will go to the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force meetings. The last meeting was in May, she said.

As for possibly starting a similar task force in Riverhead Town, she said, “They’ve been sharing what they’ve been doing with us and, hopefully, we’ll be able to replicate it over here in the future. But we have not organized anything yet. For now, we’re working with them, and we might do something in the future.”

Mr. Scott, a Westhampton resident, said he was contacted a few months ago by Islip Town Supervisor Angie M. Carpenter to create a similar task force in her town. While her town is roughly five times as large as Southampton, the makeup of the task force will be similar. Mr. Scott noted that school superintendents, law enforcement officials, and parents who have lost loved ones have already signed on.

That task force will also likely make recommendations to its Town Board—though Mr. Scott stressed that it’s still in its early stages.

He also recently started forming a similar opioid task force in Huntington Town.

What’s The Solution?

Mr. Scott revealed one recommendation that the task force plans to offer: The town should have a community outreach center, where individuals in recovery could receive support. He envisions the town having a place similar to THRIVE, a Hauppauge-based nonprofit that promotes itself as “a center for transformation, healing, recovery, inspiration, validation and empowerment.”

Mr. Scott explained that on days like Super Bowl Sunday—when thousands of people across the country are cracking open ice cold beers to watch the big game, and temptations are high for those in recovery—THRIVE holds alcohol- and drug-free viewings. “The people who belong to THRIVE say it’s really effective,” he said.

Mr. Omlor noted that he would like to see a center like THRIVE come to his community, explaining that a lot of people in recovery would benefit from having a place like that to go locally.

“The reality for someone who is living here on the East End to drive an hour to go to a place like that is difficult,” Mr. Omlor said.

Mr. Scott declined to reveal the rest of the recommendations that the task force would present, but it appears that all four subcommittees of the task force are in agreement about one thing: there is a negative stigma attached to opioid addiction. Dr. Dan Van Arsdale, a physician at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, and a member of Southampton’s task force, said he sees local families battling the negative stereotype attached to opioid addiction every day.

The stigma rings similar to other “social diseases,” Dr. Van Arsdale explained. He compared the stigma surrounding opioid addiction to the way society often views sexually transmitted diseases, or the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

It took a national movement to break the AIDS stigma, and will take the same type of political movement to crush the way people view opioid addiction, he said. Advocates need to be vocal and demand more treatment facilities open and more beds become available.

“It needs to come out in the open,” Dr. Van Arsdale said.

Dr. Shawn Cannon, a general physician at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, who recruited Dr. Van Arsdale to the hospital more than a decade ago because of his expertise in addiction medicine practice, noted that universities need to start training doctors on how to handle addiction.

Addiction education is not typically part of medical school training.

“It’s the number-one cause of death, yet it’s not included in the curriculum,” said Dr. Cannon, as he sat in a conference room in an annex medical office to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.

Dr. Cannon becomes visibly heated when he discusses the struggles with treating opioid addiction. Sometimes parents take too long to get their child help because they are in denial. “Everyone wants a perfect teenager,” he said.

Dr. Cannon added that it’s also frustrating that when doctors start to write fewer prescriptions to wean patients off opioids, but they instead start raiding the medicine cabinets of loved ones and seeking out heroin on the streets—a cheap alternative that is sometimes laced with the highly addictive narcotic, fentanyl.

Mr. Omlor said there are a few ways to break the stigma: talking about it, having an open mind when meeting people in long-term recovery, and being aware of the impacts opioid addiction is having on the community.

Dr. Cannon added that more pill collection boxes, where people can drop off unused medications, like the Big Red Med boxes scattered at more than 20 locations across Southampton Town, would help control the problem, giving addicts less access to unused prescription pills at home. “We should have those boxes for opioids everywhere,” he said.

Tom McAbee, executive director of Big Red Med, who also sits on the task force, said thousands of pounds of pills have been collected in the boxes since the initiative began in 2010.

“It’s truly amazing how much stuff is out there that needs to be disposed of,” added Bob Grisnik, owner and pharmacist at Southrifty Drug in Southampton, as he emptied a Big Red Med box in his store.

As for the police department, Chief Skrynecki has already begun implementing a “bridge program.” Under the program, if police are called to administer Narcan—a prescription drug that reverses the effects of an overdose—the family is put in contact with members of the treatment subcommittee of the task force.

Meanwhile, Mr. Omlor said he thinks a focus should be put on a “catch-22” he sees on a regular basis at his job: Admission into long-term treatment facilities often can be an answer for people battling addiction, but many insurance companies cover only a short-term stay or outpatient treatment. Some plans cover only a couple of days, while others can cover up to a couple of weeks.

“The longer someone is in treatment, the less likely they are to relapse,” Mr. Omlor said.

Nancy Lynott, a task force member and the chairwoman of the Southampton Youth Bureau, said a focus should also be put on using research to create new education materials to start dialogue with children and parents earlier on about the dangers of substance abuse. She also supports strict social host laws—especially when opioids are involved.

Late last month, Suffolk County added opioids to its social host law, meaning that adults are now prohibited from knowingly permitting anyone under the age of 18 to take opioids such as oxycodone, as well as marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anabolic steroids, in their home. Previously, the law applied only to underage drinking.

Mr. Scott said he feels that the conversation and public awareness is helping the crisis, pointing to a decrease in reported opioid related deaths across Long Island. “I think it’s making a difference,” he said. “I think people who are addicted to opioids are being more careful.”

Tim Gannon of the Times Review Media Group contributed to this story for the East End News Project.

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