Emergency responders seeing more overdoses involving prescription drugs
Ellensburg has seen an increase in the number of overdoses involving prescription medication, according to Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Rich Elliott.
KVFR responded to 75 overdoses as of May, only three more than in 2016, a total that includes everything from marijuana to binge drinking to prescription drugs, Elliott said. But the type of overdoses that emergency personnel are responding to that has changed. Instead of binge drinking, medical crews have seen an uptick in the number of people taking various prescription medication.
“It’s stuff that isn’t easy for EMS personnel to reverse. There might not be any coming back,” he said.
The rise in prescription medication overdoses signals a need for greater mental health services, he said. People need to receive treatment before their mental state becomes a crisis and they respond with drastic measures.
A meeting has been planned in Ellensburg in July with mental health stakeholders to discuss what can be done.
“There are a whole bunch of people in the community working on this,” Elliott said.
Once emergency services have been called, a person may already have damaged their lives, he said. In the least, people will be handed a large hospital bill and if in-patient care is needed, they could lose their job.
“So for mental health it is critical that people have access to services before they get into crisis because the crisis makes the situation worse,” Elliott said.
Making sure people have access to basic health care might be a part of the solution, he said. If people can see a doctor earlier, mental health problems might get caught before escalating. Otherwise people will end up calling 911 and still receive treatment, but through the emergency room.
Calling 911 is most expensive way and the least effective way to get help, he said.
Miguel Messina, vice president for substance use disorder treatment services at Comprehensive Healthcare, said mental health and substance abuse concerns have always existed in communities. Over the years people have started to look at these issues in a different light and have started to address them in a more collective manner.
Comprehensive Healthcare is a private nonprofit organization that provides recovery-oriented services throughout the region.
“Washington is working toward that integration,” Messina said. “So the more we work together at looking at people holistically the better we will be at not only treating, but preventing.”
Washington’s health care system is moving toward treating whole person, Messina said. When patients go to the doctor their mental health, as well as their physical health, should be considered.
A lot of mental health issues can go on for years before someone realizes they have a problem, Messina said. Usually something occurs that pushes a person over the edge and brings the problem to the surface.
“Mental illness has a precipitating event and a development event like every sickness,” he said. “The same thing as a tumor. Tons of people live with a tumor on their brain and they never know until it causes problems.”
For example a person might lose their job and then start to drink and enter a spiral that gets worse and worse, Messina said. The best prevention for people in these types of situations is for friends and family to notice and act.
“It relies on social systems as a prevention for suicide,” he said. “People wanting to get involved. People wanting to say, ‘What’s up? Can we get you someone to talk to you?’”
Rural communities face challenges when providing mental health care, Messina said. It can be difficult to get funding or specialized treatment into more remote locations.
“Sometimes the more rural you get, it becomes a matter of educating people that they have resources,” he said.
Part of the solution has to be changing the social stigmas around mental illness, Messina said. Over the years as celebrities have opened up about mental illness and even in some situations taken their own lives society has become more accepting, but communities still have a ways to go.
“Every time we get people in the media it helps a little bit,” he said. “It helps to create a community message to say suicide, addiction and mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It happens to the best of us.”