In Niagara County, the opioid overdose death rate is higher than both the state and national average, and the number of drug-addicted babies born here is the highest in New York state. On March 4, 2020, Niagara University’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare and the Center for the Study and Practice of Religion co-sponsored a panel discussion on the resources available to address the county’s opioid crisis.
Panelists included Dr. Peter Butera, dean of the Niagara University College of Arts and Sciences and professor of psychology; Myrla Gibbons-Doxey, deputy director of the Niagara County Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; the Honorable William Watson, city court judge in Lockport, N.Y.; and Howard Morgan, volunteer at Immaculata Home in Lockport, N.Y.
Dr. Butera led the discussion with an explanation of the systematic changes that occur in brain function and structure following drug use and the challenges this presents for recovery.
“From the treatment side of things, that could make recovery very complicated,” he noted. “You need to figure out a way to unlearn those memories that have been laid down following chronic drug use. The jury’s still out on whether or not you can do that.”
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, a growing number of resources are available to help people with opioid addictions recover. Gibbons-Doxey gave an overview of the direct services offered by the Department of Mental Health, which include adult clinic behavioral health services, a 24-hour crisis phone line, hospital diversion, forensic case management, and an assisted outpatient treatment program.
Gibbons-Doxey also explained the work being done by the Niagara County Opioid Task Force’s Public Awareness and Involvement Subcommittee, which she chairs. In addition to developing public service announcements, the group partnered with the Niagara Falls School District to have students create signs with the task force’s contact information that were installed on bus stop benches throughout city. They also went into classrooms to educate students to make the best choices that they could to avoid drug use. She noted these efforts were intended as preventative measures, because the population that is most at risk for overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, is between the ages of 20 and 29.
“Our tagline is ‘There is help, there is hope, recovery is possible,’” she said.
The multi-prong approach being used to address the opioid crisis in the county also includes the criminal justice system. Judge Watson talked about the treatment courts, including the drug court, that he helped to establish during his 20 years as a city court judge in the City of Lockport. These courts provide intensive judicial supervision to help participants stay sober and take actions, such as moving off social services or obtaining a job, to holistically turn their lives around.
Initially against the idea of a drug court, Watson decided to give it a chance. He was given the opportunity to tailor it in the way he felt would best assist the community.
“I can tell you now, over the course of 20 years, I’ve educated myself, along with the philosophy of the disease of addiction, on what needs to be done,” he said, acknowledging that he originally thought that the participants, who are drug addicts who break the law because of their addiction rather than criminals with a drug problem, could simply chose to stop using.
Faith can also be a key to recovery. Morgan, a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, volunteers with his wife at Immaculata Home in Lockport, a Christian-centered re-entry shelter for women founded by a former prison chaplain.
“We try to bring a message of unconditional love, trust without judging, and helping them discover that there’s a loving God up there to help them complete their spiritual side of their life,” he said. “Currently, we’re facilitating a 21-step program called ‘Co-dependent to Independent’ and we’re really trying to work with the women to try to find out how they got where they’re at. It’s based very heavily in Scripture.”
He added that he and his wife also show the women what a stable relationship looks like, because so many of them have experienced failed relationships that have led to addiction. “(We try to) find out the root causes of what got them to where they are and hopefully … they can work through that, and then they can be successful and productive again and back into the community and some of them back with their families whom they dearly miss and love.”
A question and answer session followed the presentations, which were organized by Dr. James Delaney, professor of philosophy and director of the Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare, and Dr. Craig Rivera, professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Religion. Questions centered around drug use in Erie County as compared to Niagara County; Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioids; and the factors that led to the county’s high rates of drug use.
“The whys are always difficult to answer, because it’s a complex issue,” Gibbons-Doxey said, noting that high poverty rates, rural areas where drugs can be manufactured, and routes on which drugs are trafficked can be some of the reasons. “I think that is the golden question. If we can figure out the why, maybe we can do a lot more in solving this.”