'Start a conversation': Town hall tackles stigma of addiction

Jody Guerra, of Recovery Unplugged in Austin, speaks about the barriers to treatment that people with drug use disorders face. Billy T. Cattan Recovery Outreach organized the town hall to bring community members together to talk about addiction.

Victoria County could soon be home to a drug court or drug diversion program that would provide an alternate path for addicts facing criminal charges instead of the traditional criminal justice system.

Constance Filley Johnson, Victoria County’s criminal district attorney, said she and her colleagues were actively exploring a program that would help connect addicts with treatment instead of simply prosecuting them.

Filley Johnson described her plans, and her office’s approach to drug and alcohol addiction, during a two-hour town hall Thursday hosted by Billy T. Cattan Recovery Outreach, the nonprofit that provides outpatient treatment for people with substance use disorders.

“We are in the very infant stages right now of fleshing out what a drug court in our community might look like,” she said in an interview after the panel. “Treatment as opposed to incarceration has proven time and time again to be much more effective long-term and cost-effective ... It costs a lot more to incarcerate someone than it does to treat them.”

Filley Johnson, who took office in January, emphasized that such a program was still in early planning stages but that she hoped to have something in place by 2020.

Earlier this year, Filley Johnson and her colleagues went to visit Caldwell County’s drug court to sit through the proceedings, she said.

The town hall fostered a wide-ranging discussion bringing together service providers, recovering drug and alcohol users, physicians and law enforcement to talk about addiction and the stigma that makes treatment difficult to access for those in need. Despite progress in viewing addictions as a public health epidemic and not a moral or personal failing, the U.S. still has a long way to go to fully accept people with substance use disorders, panelists said.

“Most people, if they have a medical condition that would require them to take a few days off or take a few weeks off to go get treated, they really wouldn’t be worried,” said Jody Guerra, from Recovery Unplugged in Austin. “The fear that people have when they do realize that they have an addiction problem or a drug problem or an alcohol problem, going to work and asking for the time off to go to treatment is extremely difficult.”

The conversation also connected physicians working to treat patients with substance use disorders, who might also have a co-occurring mental illness, with law enforcement officials who are increasingly acknowledging addictions and drug use as a health problem. Two-thirds of sentenced inmates in local jails met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, according to federal data, compared with about 5% of the general population.

Clyde Keebaugh, with the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, said most people who are in local jails or in prisons are offered limited or nonexistent treatment options.

“We don’t even consider prison time abstinence. If we do, it’s forced abstinence,” Keebaugh said, “And so that really doesn’t count toward them being able to remain clean and sober.”

Last year, Victoria resident Clinton Harrington died while behind bars at the Victoria County jail. Harrington was addicted to opioids and was arrested on suspicion of drug possession. The 32-year-old died after he underwent a rapid methadone detox while behind bars. Two experts told the Advocate that Harrington was detoxed off methadone far too quickly. His death, one of those experts said, was likely the result of that process.

At the end of the town hall, panelists said continuing the conversation would be one of the most powerful combatants to the stigma of tackling mental illness.

Ryan Jaynes, who is a recovering addict, said when he finished three months of treatment at Billy Cattan, he was left wanting more support. After receiving feedback from Jaynes and other clients, Billy Cattan leaders decided to start a peer support group for those going through treatment or who had completed treatment. Now, Jaynes helps to lead the group, which meets weekly.

The group has grown from a regular attendance of about five people to almost 30 people since it started two and a half years ago, said Daniel Barrientos, the nonprofit’s executive director

Barrientos said he hopes Thursday’s town hall will be one in a series of discussions he hosts in the community. The next conversation will likely tackle the opioid epidemic, he said.

“Start a conversation about something you heard here, and talk about that,” Keebaugh said. “Talk about it. Get over the fear and stigma of bringing this up to your friends.”

Ciara McCarthy covers public health for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara. To support local journalism at the Advocate through Report for America, go to VictoriaAdvocate.com/report.

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Health Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers public health for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. She reports on insurance, the cost of health care, local hospitals, and more. Questions, tips, or ideas? Contact: cmccarthy@vicad.com or call 361-580-6597.

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