HCN News & Notes

Commentary: Owning the Problem of Addiction

More than 600 people gathered at the MassMutual Center in Springfield last week for a first-of-a-kind event in many ways.

This was the Caritas Gala, staged by the Sisters of Providence Health System (SPHS), an event to raise money to treat — and raise awareness of — addiction, and especially the opioid-addiction crisis that is affecting our communities in many ways.

As noted, this was the first Caritas Gala, and it was the first time we know of that people came together in a very large space to openly acknowledge and address a problem that is reaching epic proportions.

It was encouraging to see, and a welcome development for this region, because to truly fight addiction, our communities have to own the problem. And until very recently, they really haven’t.

Indeed, addiction, through the ages, and until very recently, has been something we didn’t talk about much — let alone come together at a gala to fight — and certainly didn’t own. It was generally someone else’s problem, something you read about in the paper or hear about from your neighbor and shake your head in response.

Not anymore.

The opioid crisis has certainly hit home. Almost everyone’s home. In fact, it would be very hard to find someone who has not been touched directly — or doesn’t know someone who has been touched directly — by this crisis. By that, we mean touched in the most profound and tragic way possible — someone losing their life to an addiction problem.

The current estimates are that roughly four people are dying each day in Massachusetts alone to this epidemic. Four people a day! Every day. And with each death, a family, or two, or three, is shattered.

The very worst part about the opioid crisis is that those who are fighting it on the front lines — people like Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer and vice president of Addiction and Recovery Services for the SPHS, who was honored at the gala with the first Caritas Award — can’t even tell us if it has plateaued yet. As much as we would like to believe it has, they just don’t know, and if they had to guess, they would likely say ‘probably not.’

This sad fact was the primary motivation for the Caritas Ball (‘caritas’ means love). All those involved know that this fight is still very much in the beginning stages, and we have a long, long way to go before maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to stage this kind of event anymore.

Defeating an epidemic of this magnitude takes many things, starting with money, which was one of the primary motivations for the event — money for treatment, money for prevention programs, money to build or expand facilities where those who are addicted, and their families, can get help.

But beyond money, the key to addressing this issue is, again, taking ownership of it, and a big part of that equation is removing the stigma that has long been attached to this issue.

Gov. Charlie Baker said it best in a video congratulations note to Roose played at the gala: “Addiction is a disease; it’s not a character flaw.”

Saying those words is one thing; believing them, and treating those addicted accordingly — as if they had a disease — are two different things. To battle the problem correctly, our communities need to provide understanding, compassion, and, yes, caritas.

Last Saturday was a big night in Springfield. The Thunderbirds were playing, and the ‘Pink in the Rink’ event, a fundraiser for Dress for Success, preceded the action. There was a third event at the MassMutual Center — another of the many dance competitions staged there — and a performance at Symphony Hall. Downtown was alive, parking was at a premium, and everyone was marveling at how vibrant Springfield was.

They were also marveling at how 600 people, including a host of business, civic, academic, and healthcare leaders, had come together to help stare down the most imposing health crisis (for that’s what it is) that our society has probably ever seen.

Plans are already underway for the 2018 gala, and there will probably be several to follow; this battle will not be won quickly or easily.

It starts with owning the problem, and the gala represented a huge step forward.