Matthew Omlor, outpatient clinical supervisor at the Long Island Center for Recovery in Hampton Bays, said he sees patients — or prospective patients — battling the stigma surrounding opioid addiction every day.
Dispelling the shame or disgrace that often plagues those affected by the opioid crisis is among the highest hurdles to clear in seeking solutions to this regional problem, according to multiple experts.
“We need to be able to reach people and help people understand that [addiction] doesn’t mean a person is a bad person,” Mr. Omlor said. “It means that a person has a problem that they got help for, and that they are doing something about it.”
He also has firsthand experience.
Mr. Omlor, a longtime Manorville resident, had his first taste of nicotine at 12 years old — a decision that would eventually lead him, he said, on a dark path to opioid addiction.
Mr. Omlor said he never thought he’d become a drug addict. But he enjoyed smoking cigarettes and, as he entered his teenage years, upgraded his substance of choice to alcohol and, soon, marijuana. Before he knew it, the self-described “naive teen” found himself at a party where he was offered a Vicodin, a narcotic pain killer. His friends convinced him it would be a better high.
But the Vicodin pills quickly turned him to other highly addictive narcotics — and, eventually, at age 16, to heroin.
Mr. Omlor said he knew doing heroin was wrong, but fell for the sales pitch: It would be cheaper than Vicodin, he would get the same high and he could get the drug in his system without using needles.
Looking back, Mr. Omlor, now 27, said he still remembers the “pit” in his stomach the day he was offered heroin for the first time. “Once I switched to heroin,” he said, “it was game over.”
Ultimately, he landed in a long-term addiction recovery program and was able to reclaim his life, returning home drug free after two years of treatment.
At one time, his drug use made him appear to be the bad kid in the neighborhood, the one parents wanted their kids to stay away from. But today, parents seek him out to help when their own children find themselves on a similar dark path.
“Anybody, no matter what your circumstances are, no matter how helpless you feel, can live a life in recovery,” said Mr. Omlor.
Mr. Omlor, who has a master’s degree in social work and sits on Southampton Town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force, said he is sharing his story to help put a stop to a crisis that’s derailing lives nationwide every day. On June 21, task force members will present the Southampton Town Board with a series of recommendations for mounting an effective local response to the opioid crisis.
In Southampton Town alone, 19 people died from opioid addiction in 2017, according to Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. The town numbers reflect a larger regional crisis: Suffolk County reported approximately 400 opioid deaths last year.
“It would take me more than an hour to write down the names of the people I personally know who died of opioids,” Mr. Omlor said.
One positive sign: There has been only one opioid-related death in Southampton so far in 2018.
It Takes A Village
As the death toll continued to climb in 2017, doctors, educators and law enforcement officials found themselves continuously shaking their heads: How do you put a stop to the opioid crisis?
After pondering this question last fall, Mr. Schneiderman called on former News 12 Long Island anchor Drew Scott of Westhampton, whose 22-year-old granddaughter had fallen victim to opioids, for help in kickstarting the town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force.
Mr. Scott’s granddaughter Hallie Ulrich, a graduate of Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, was found dead of an overdose on Sept. 7, 2017. Her boyfriend, 28-year-old Michael Goericke, died of an overdose the next day. Ms. Ulrich’s mother, Sally Gillies, and cousin, 16-year-old Mackenzie Jenkins, have since joined the task force and are determined to get to the crux of the crisis and find a solution.
The task force comprises four committees: law enforcement, education, recovery and treatment. Since its inception, these committees have each met several times to discuss solutions they’ll recommend to the Town Board.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki cites the single fatal overdose so far this year as a sign that the task force is already proving effective. “Only one is obviously too many,” he said. “But I think the task force is making positive results.”
Southampton’s effort is creating a ripple effect, as other areas on Long Island begin establishing their own opioid task forces.
“We’ve been participating in their task force to get a feel of what they’re doing, and to decide what we can do and bring over here,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.
Usually, she said, she or someone from the Riverhead’s Police Department —sometimes both — will attend Southampton’s task force meetings, the last of which took place in May.
As for possibly starting a similar task force in Riverhead, Ms. Jens-Smith said, “They’ve been sharing what they’ve been doing with us and, hopefully, we’ll be able to replicate it over here in the future. But we have not organized anything yet. For now, we’re working with them, and we might do something in the future.”
Mr. Scott said he was contacted a few months ago by Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter about creating create a similar task force there. He also recently began forming a similar task force in Huntington Town.
What’s The Solution?
Mr. Scott revealed one recommendation the task force plans to offer: Southampton should have a community outreach center, where individuals in recovery can receive support. He envisions a place similar to THRIVE, a Hauppauge nonprofit that promotes itself as “a center for transformation, healing, recovery, inspiration, validation and empowerment.”
Mr. Scott explained that on days like Super Bowl Sunday — when thousands of people across the country crack open ice cold beers to watch the big game and temptations is high for those in recovery — THRIVE holds alcohol- and drug-free viewings. “The people who belong to THRIVE say it’s really effective,” he said.
Mr. Omlor noted that he’d like to have a center like THRIVE in his community, explaining that a lot of people in recovery would benefit from having a place like that to go locally.
“The reality for someone who is living here on the East End to drive an hour to go to a place like that is difficult,” he said.
Mr. Scott declined to reveal any other recommendations the task force will present, but it appears all four subcommittees agree about one thing: There is a negative stigma attached to opioid addiction. Task force member Dr. Dan Van Arsdale of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital said he sees local families battle negative stereotyping every day.
The stigma recalls those associated with other “social diseases,” Dr. Van Arsdale explained, saying it can be compared to how society often views sexually transmitted diseases, or the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
It took a national movement to break the AIDS stigma, he said, and will take the same type of political movement to crush the way people view opioid addiction. Advocates need to be vocal and demand that more treatment facilities open and more beds become available.
“It needs to come out in the open,” Dr. Van Arsdale said.
Dr. Shawn Cannon, also of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, recruited Dr. Van Arsdale over a decade ago because of his expertise in addiction medicine practice. He noted that universities need to start training doctors on handling addiction, which is not typically part of medical school training.
“It’s the No. 1 cause of death, yet it’s not included in the curriculum,” he said.
Dr. Cannon becomes visibly distressed when he discusses the struggles with treating opioid addiction. Sometimes, he said, parents take too long to get their children help because they are in denial. “Everyone wants a perfect teenager,” he said.
Dr. Cannon added that it’s also frustrating for doctors. When they write fewer prescriptions to wean people from opioids, those patients may instead start raiding the medicine cabinets of loved ones or seeking out heroin on the streets as a cheap alternative.
Mr. Omlor said there are a few ways to break the stigma: talking about it, having an open mind when meeting people in long-term recovery and being aware of the impacts opioid addiction is having on the community.
Dr. Cannon added that more collection boxes for disposal of unused medications, like the Big Red Med boxes found at more than 20 locations across Southampton, would help control the problem by reducing addicts’ access to unused prescription pills at home. “We should have those boxes for opioids everywhere,” he said.
Tom McAbee, executive director of Big Red Med, who also sits on the task force, said thousands of pounds of pills have been collected since the initiative began in 2010.
As for the police department, Chief Skrynecki has already begun implementing a “bridge program,” which put the families of people to whom police administer Narcan in contact with members of task force’s treatment subcommittee.
Meanwhile, Mr. Omlor said he thinks emphasis should be put on a “catch-22” he sees regularly at his job: Admission to long-term treatment facilities often can be an answer for people battling addiction, but many insurance companies only cover short-term stays or outpatient treatment. Some plans only cover a couple of days, while others can cover a couple of weeks.
“The longer someone is in treatment, the less likely they are to relapse,” Mr. Omlor said.
Task force member Nancy Lynott, chairwoman of the Southampton Youth Bureau, said another focus should be research to create new educational materials that encourage earlier parent-child dialogue about the dangers of substance abuse. She also supports strict social host laws — especially when opioids are involved.
Late last month, Suffolk County added opioids to its social host law, prohibiting adults from knowingly permitting anyone under 18 to take opioids such as oxycodone, as well as marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anabolic steroids, in their home. Previously, the law applied only to underage drinking.
Mr. Scott said he feels that conversation and public awareness are helping, pointing to a decrease in reported opioid related deaths across Long Island.
“I think it’s making a difference,” he said. “I think people who are addicted to opioids are being more careful.”
WITH TIM GANNON
Photo caption: Pharmacist Bob Grisnik, owner of Southrifty Drugs in Southampton Village, removes unused medications from the pharmacy’s Big Red Med disposal box. (Amanda Bernocco)