Shedding Light on an Epidemic – Caritas Ball Will Raise Money, Awareness Concerning Opioids

As he talked about the opioid epidemic engulfing the region and the nation, Dr. Robert Roose drew parallels to some other healthcare crises of the past and present.

These ranged from the still-ongoing battle to cure cancer to the nation’s waged war on cigarette smoking; from efforts to stem hepatitis C to the battle against HIV.

But in some respects, the opioid crisis, which doesn’t show any apparent signs of plateauing, is unlike many of those other crises, said Roose, chief medical officer and vice presidednt of Addiction and Recovery Services for the Sisters of Providence Heath System (SPHS), in that many still do not regard it as a disease, and there remains a huge stigma attached to it.

But like those other, aforementioned, health crises, the opioid epidemic is one for which it will take years to effectively address the many facets of the problem and achieve desired progress.

“We know that it’s going to take a considerable amount of time and resources to reverse this trend and address this epidemic comprehensively, in the way that it took time to get our arms around other public-health epidemics,” Roose told HCN. “If you look at other public health crises like HIV, hepatitis C, or tobacco use, it wasn’t a process of just a year or two; it was a large-scale effort in a number of different ways over a period of a decade or more to make substantial gains. It will be the same with the opioid epidemic.”

These collective observations go a long way toward explaining the need for, the genesis of, the name given to, and even the chosen theme surrounding the first annual Caritas Gala on March 11 at the MassMutual Center. The event was conceptualized to raise money for the various programs created within what is known now as Mercy Behavioral Health Care to combat this crisis, and also to raise awareness of the problem and the need to eliminate or mitigate that aforementioned stigma.

As for that name, the Caritas Gala, Allison Gearing-Kalill, vice president of Fund Development for SPHS, went to the dictionary as the best course for explaining it.

“‘Caritas’ is a noun that means the Christian love of humankind: charity, virtue, and love for all,” she explained, adding that this name, coupled with the chosen theme — “All You Need Is Love” — speaks volumes about the problem and the system’s approach to combatting it, given the extent of the crisis and the depth of the stigma confronting those who are addicted, as well as their families.

It also speaks to the mission and the ongoing work of the Sisters of Providence, said Gearing-Kalill, adding that they have responded to the needs of the community for more than 140 years, and the system’s response to the opioid crisis is the latest example of this commitment.

The Caritas Gala, which will feature a cocktail reception, live entertainment from the band Beantown, and a silent auction, is the latest in a series of events staged by Mercy Behavioral Health to raise money, awareness, or both in the wake of this epidemic, said Gearing-Kalill, and there will be many more to come because the crisis is ongoing and there are many facets to it.

These points were driven home at a recent program at CityStage featuring former NBA player Chris Herren, who spoke passionately about the long, difficult journey from addiction to opioids, including heroin, to sobriety. His talk helped those at Mercy Behavioral Health spotlight its three-pronged approach to the current crisis, known collectively as ‘Pathway to Care,’ said Roose, listing them thusly:

• Expanding access to treatment through new levels of care;

• Enhancing the care and facilities where treatment is provided to reduce stigma; and

• Engaging the community in new ways of thinking about the disease.

For this issue, HCN talked with Roose about each of these initiatives, and how the Caritas Gala will support these various efforts.

Following a Roadmap

Roose started, though, by talking about how the number of opioid overdose deaths continues to climb in Massachusetts and elsewhere. In the Bay State, the total of overdose deaths rose from 1,383 (estimated) in 2014 to 1,747 in 2015, the latest number available, although Roose said the figure climbed still higher in 2016.

“A few years after Massachusetts Gov. [Deval] Patrick declared a public-health emergency, we still, as a community, and especially in Western Mass., are struggling with opioid addiction,” he explained. “We continue to see the rates of addiction increase, and overdose, as the most tragic complication of this disease, also continues to increase. As a treatment provider, and as a leadving organization addressing this crisis, these numbers tell a story — that there is still much more to be done.”

Indeed, the only positive thing to say about those overdose numbers, said Roose, is that continued media fixation on them has kept the opioid crisis on the front pages of the nation’s and region’s newspapers and driven home the point that this is a huge matter to be dealt with aggressively.

“For a number of years, opioid addiction has been recognized as one of the most significant public-health issues that the Commonwealth faces,” he explained. “Initial efforts to address that crisis have, I believe, laid out a series of plans and a road map, if you will, to bend the trend or address that crisis.”

This roadmap has identified several goals, or priorities, when it comes to halting and then reversing current trend lines, he said, including efforts designed to prevent addiction, intervening with individuals with substance abuse early, providing better access to treatment, and then supporting individuals in recovery over the long term.

Mercy Behavioral Health Care is following that road map, with new and expanded programs at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital and other locations, he said, adding that funding is needed to create and sustain such programming, and this is one of the key motivations behind the Caritas Gala and other initiatives like it.

“Science has really caught up to this disease, if you will,” Roose explained. “We not only have better recognition of the disease, we also have better treatments and understanding of these treatments, so the time is now for us to say, ‘we have a plan to expand treatment, enhance our facilities, and engage the community, because we believe we can make a real impact.’”

Elaborating, he said there is now a full array of services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital designed to address prevention and intervention, and support the patient on the road to sobriety. They include:

• Acute treatment services, or detox programs designed to assist in the management of substance-withdrawal symptoms and co-occurring psychiatric needs. This, said Roose, is an entry point;

• A range of outpatient services, including day-treatment programs that run three to five days a week, as well as one-on-one therapy for patients further along in recovery;

• Opioid-treatment programs, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based treatment that incorporates medication (methodone) and clinical treatment in a structured setting;

• Office-based addiction treatment, which is individualized medical treatment, incorporating a comprehensive assessment and use of medications including buprenorphine or naltrexone; and

• The latest addition to the portfolio, a clinical-stabilization service, also known as a step-down unit, for people transitioning from the acute-treatment service to the clinical service, thus giving them a better chance at long-term recovery. This 21-bed unit will open over the next few weeks.

Funding for that facility has come through grants, but also the larger Pathway to Care program, said Roose, adding that the gala is the latest initiative in that larger effort.

The gala and other initiatives to raise money and awareness for the effort to combat the opioid epidemic are somewhat unique — for this particular problem, said Roose, but not for many other health disorders and issues.

And the timing was right to change that equation, he went on.

“We want to engage the community in a way different from how it has been engaged before,” he explained, “because we feel this issue is just as important and deserved the same sorts of respect and resources as other chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“It’s not a new phenomenon that there are resources needed on this issue,” he went on. “But because of the greater attention being paid to this issue, we’re choosing to speak out and look for resources.”

The Time Is Now

As he talked about behavioral healthcare in general and opioid-treatment initiatives specifically, Roose said these have historically not been topics that organizations talk about a great deal, let alone stage a gala as part of efforts to combat them.

“These are diseases that, for a long period of time, were only talked about in the shadows,” he explained, adding quickly that, given the magnitude of the opioid crisis, the still-climbing numbers of fatal overdoses, and the huge swell in attention given to this epidemic, the time is right to come out of the shadows and into the light.

The Caritas Gala is all about putting more light onto the issue, he said, adding that with that light will hopefully come support (in many forms, but especially funding), more and better programming, and, eventually — and hopefully — progress.

That’s what the road map calls for, said Roose, adding, again, that progress will not come quickly or easily, but momentum is building.

As the slogan for the gala notes, “all you need is love.”

For more information on the gala or to purchase tickets, visit www.mercycares.com/caritasgala.

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