By Stephen J. Kotz
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman recited some sobering statistics as members of the town’s newly created opioid task force held their first public forum on November 15: Roughly 142 people die from opioid overdoses each day in the United States. One person a day dies in Suffolk County and on average one dies each month in Southampton Town.
“One person from our community is being snatched from us through this terrible crisis of opioid addiction, and our job is to prevent the next one, to figure out a way to stop this from happening,” he told the audience of several hundred people who filed into the Hampton Bays High School auditorium. “And I have faith in this community that by coming together, we will identify the next potential victim and get to them before heroin, fentanyl or OxyContin does.”
The Southampton Town Board created the task force, made up of healthcare professionals, educators and other community members, last month and directed it to create a plan of action for tackling the opioid crisis on a local level by next June.
Former News 12 anchorman Drew Scott, who lost his granddaughter Hallie Ulrich — a Pierson High School graduate — to an overdose in September, is serving as co-chairman of the task force. “If people admitted this was an epidemic across the board, I think we’d be making headway right now. We are now sweeping it under the rug,” he said. “There is a stigma attached with heroin overdoses and deaths, and what I’m trying to do is say, ‘it happened to me; it can happen to you, your children or your loved ones.’”
The event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, the president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association of Mineola, said much more needed to be done in teaching prevention — he said schools should introduce prevention strategies in kindergarten and not stop until students graduate — and in providing better treatment options.
“The problem is in a lot of cases people get treatment very, very late in the game,” he said. Dr. Reynolds complained that insurance companies often require addicts to fail to get clean through out-patient programs before they are allowed to enter in-patient centers, and then the average stay is only eight and a half days.
“It doesn’t need to be this way. We are talking about something that is preventable. We are talking about a disease that is treatable,” he said. “We won’t solve this problem until we have treatment on demand for everyone.”
Young people need particular attention, he said. “We have to advocate, particularly here on the East End for a recovery center for young people who are trying to get their lives back on track.”
And he said communities need to prepare for a long battle. “We’re talking about fentanyl now,” he said of the powerful and highly addictive synthetic opioid. “Here’s the thing. Another drug is going to come along. We better make sure we are prepared the next time around.”
He likened the opioid crisis to the AIDS epidemic. “We all said, ‘Never again can this happen. Never again can we watch an entire generation wither before our very eyes from something that is preventable and treatable,’” he said. “We are doing it again. We are making some of those same mistakes.”
Another speaker, Kim Laube, the executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Services, said communication was key. “Kids know drugs are bad,” she said. “But if it was just a matter of educating them, then we’ve done our job.” She said parents had to take a hard look and realize they are often the ones modeling bad behavior, typically through the use of alcohol, for their children.
Ms. Laube soon yielded the microphone to Linda Ventura, whose son, Thomas, died of an overdose five years ago when he was only 21. She showed a slide show of family photographs narrated by her “son,” who describes his rapid descent into addiction and death.
She said her son started with alcohol and marijuana but had progressed to heroin within three years. “Unfortunately, inside that child’s brain it was like wildfire,” she said of the disease of substance abuse. “The substance is not important. It is the disease we have to keep our eye on.”
“As the holidays approach, we live in a prison we’re never going to get paroled from,” she said of parents who lose a child to addiction. “If, God forbid, he had childhood cancer, I would have had a revolving door of spaghetti dinners.” Instead, she said, her son became the scourge of the neighborhood.
She, too, said prevention was key. “Our children need coping skills,” she said. “We know better. We have to do better. No more sweeping it under the rug.”
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said there have been 17 fatal overdoses in the town this year along, up from only five last year. “That’s an extremely alarming increase,” he said, noting that the incidences are spread throughout town, with most of those dying between the ages of 21 and 35, with men about twice as likely as women to die from overdoses.
He said over his 40 years in law enforcement, a significant change had occurred. “We are now looking at users not as criminals but as people who are in need of treatment and in need of help,” he said.
While the use of Narcan, an opioid antidote has helped officers save many lives, it still leaves police wondering, “How many times are we going to come back to the same person with Narcan reviving them?,” he said. “We have to do more than that. We have to connect them to treatment.”
With the microphone turned over to the audience, the task force heard from a number of people, some of whom complained about how they had been treated by town police or how difficult it was to get treatment for family members. Others offered suggestions for improving the process.
“With all due respect, I don’t see any young people sitting behind these tables,” said Eric Saldivar, who is studying to become a treatment counselor. “If this task force is serious, you are going to bring young people to the table.”
Meesha Johnson, a resident of the Shinnecock Nation, who is also studying to become a counselor, questioned the lack of diversity. “There’s nobody like me here. There’s really no people of color,” she said. “I’m here because I want to be a resource for my Native American community.”
Mackenzie Jenkins, a Westhampton teenager, said while many people were expressing frustration, but “creating a toxic environment filled with anger won’t solve anything.” Instead, she urged participants to try a different approach. “Love one another and support one another,” she said. “Create an environment filled with love and positivity, and that’s the first step.”