By Valerie Gordon
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons is continuing its efforts to combat the overwhelming number of opioid-related overdoses on the East End.
On February 6, the Shinnecock Hills church will host Suffolk County’s first “Stories of Suffolk” forum, where experts — including medical providers, academic scholars, community advocates, law enforcement officers, state officials, and recovering addicts — will meet to discuss the next step in local efforts to fight the nationwide epidemic.
Father Constantine Lazarakis said he was contacted by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last month, inquiring about the co-pastor’s involvement with the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force. Talks continued and eventually resulted in Fr. Lazarakis offering to host the forum at the church.
“This is another way our church can be supportive,” he said. “We want to support people’s recovery and their journey through that.”
Through the years, Fr. Lazarakis said that he has seen a number of parishioners, as well as family members and close friends, struggle with opioid addiction.
The church has put itself on the front lines in the battle. Last year, parishioners made a $100,000 donation to the Southampton Town Police Department to help combat the opioid epidemic.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming could not say why Southampton was selected to host the forum, but she noted that Southampton Town has consistently ranked highly in terms of substance abuse.
“I’m grateful that it’s being held in Southampton,” she said. “It’s a region-wide problem. It seems like the perfect place to continue to fight against this.”
Since 2005, the number of high school students affected by substance abuse has steadily declined from “significantly over” the national average to just below it, according to Southampton Youth Bureau Director Nancy Lynott. Every three years, the organization sends out questionnaires to students in eighth, 10th and 12th grade.
“It’s just a human problem,” Fr. Lazarakis added. “You’re going to find it everywhere you go, and that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here with the forum.”
The conference — a joint effort between Mr. Bellone’s office and the Albany-based Rockefeller Institute of Government — will be split into two separate panels: prevention methods and treatment and recovery options.
Rockefeller Institute researcher Katie Zuber said in an interview earlier this month that while opioid addiction is a nationwide problem, every community faces individualized problems. The plan is to hash out those problems and find tailored solutions.
“Until we understand what the problem is on the ground, we’re not going to come up with the right policy solutions, no matter how many numbers we crunch,” she said. “Bringing together people from all over the spectrum, you can come up with new solutions in addressing those specific problems.”
In a press release issued in early January, the institute’s president, Dr. Jim Malatras, said that over the course of studying New York’s opioid epidemic, “Our researchers have found that to move the dial and tackle this crisis, policymakers must listen to the people on its front lines.”
Based on more than a year of research, Patricia Strach, the institute’s director of policy and research, found that a common problem among communities is access to treatment.
“Things may be available on paper, but it may be hard for people to access them in person,” Ms. Strach said.
She explained that oftentimes victims are turned away from hospitals because they don’t meet the hospital’s criteria for medical detoxing, and treatment providers often turn people away because their medications are “too dangerous.”
“They fall between the cracks,” she said. “There’s an illusion of services that seem to be available, but are really hard to get.”
Meeting with local medical experts will help to break down the walls between those cracks, and, in turn, more victims will be able to get the support and help that they need to overcome their addiction, Ms. Zuber added.
Her colleague pointed to another contributing factor to Suffolk County’s overwhelming number of opioid-related deaths, explaining that Suffolk County has one of the highest prescribing rates in New York. According to data from the New York State Department of Health Services, Suffolk County is ranked as the fifth highest rated county for overdose-related deaths.
Every year, approximately 6.2 million Americans misuse controlled prescription drugs—the majority of which are obtained from families’ and friends’ home medicine cabinets—according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Ms. Fleming noted that she is constantly amazed by the amount of unused prescription drugs that are turned in at drug take back events held throughout Southampton Town. “It’s just sitting waiting to be abused,” she said.
Mr. Bellone in the press release earlier this month, said the upcoming forum “will bring together leading experts in the field to share their experiences and discuss next steps in addressing this epidemic.”