Expert says Wisconsin leads in opioid addiction fight

October 28, 2016 GMT

WISCONSIN DELLS -- No matter how good you are, there are certainly times that you can only do so much, as many could tell you at the 12th Annual Mental Health and Substance Use Recovery Training Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

In front of an 8:30 a.m. audience Thursday in the Kalahari Conference Center, University of Wisconsin Hospital forensic psychiatrist David Mays introduced himself to the group for the second day of the conference.

“I started in psychiatry because I thought I knew what other people show be doing,” said Mays, “a lifetime later, I have my doubts.”

Speaking on “Ethics, Boundaries and the Law,” he addressed the room full of counselors and clinicians about the gray areas of mental health treatment, where health care runs into public safety, and where confidentiality collides with urgency.

“We’ve always had difficulty with people in the community that have mental health problems that are disturbing to other citizens, and so the question is how do we control this? And the pendulum has swung both ways that this is mental health responsibility or police responsibility,” said Mays.

“We are having many more conversations with law enforcement, community services and other sorts of institutions in the community trying to make sure that communities stay safe. I mean, everyone has a different interest and yet a shared interest in this.”

The most pressing issue for many in the conference was finding new ways to better manage drug treatment and stem the ongoing epidemic of opioid addiction, be it through prescription pain medication or heroin.

The featured speaker Wednesday evening was William C. Moyers, vice president of public affairs for Hazleden Betty Ford Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I think Wisconsin has as much to teach the rest of us as we at Hazleden Betty Ford have to teach Wisconsin,” Moyers said in an interview Thursday. “I’ve been around Hazleden for about 20 years as an employee, and I would say, probably, Wisconsin is in the top three states. There is a lot of awareness around the issues of alcohol and drug use and there is a lot of good effort being directed at addressing the problem and promoting the solution.”

Moyers sad the issue has evolved from being the subject of “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s to being treated as a chronic illness, with public figures speaking about it as such, most notably at the moment, on varied campaign trails.

“I’m heartened by what I see in Wisconsin. There’s a lot of good prevention and treatment recovery support happening in Wisconsin,” said Moyers. “What I was able to do yesterday in front of 850 people, was to plug into a communitywide effort across the Badger State and to promote the partnership between states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, not-for-profits and for-profits, and among experts across the continuum in a way that made me feel pretty positive and hopeful.”

Keeping up the fight can also be draining, with much of the effort coming from volunteers like the members of Stop Heroin Now, who were greeting visitors at a table in the main ballroom.

“We are all volunteers, so we work about 20 hours a week on top of our full-time positions, but what we do that I think is special is that we each have a story,” said Stop Heroin Now President Jessica Geschke. “And we pull our stories through and that’s what keeps us going.”

“We bury somebody every four minutes in this country because of this epidemic, so we need people like us, like our organization, like Rise Together, like Wisconsin CAN, to come over and make changes in this state,” said Geschke, a clinical substance abuse counselor. “Because if we don’t, people will just keep dying, and I’m not ready to keep burying people. So that’s where our drive comes from. We wake up every morning and put on our gear and go to work.

“Today I am among my peers, we’re here with other clinicians. So our message today is just not to give up hope on our patients,” she said. “I think I’ve buried 16 people alone in my practice, and so it’s hard and I think our message today is to say, we’re here. If you have somebody who comes into your practice and can’t afford treatment anymore because their insurance changes, maybe you’re trying to figure out where to send them, we’re here to help.”

Moyers said he met the members of Stop Heroin Now on Wednesday.

“That’s the other message here, that change doesn’t happen from the top down,” he said.“And what those women represent and what all those professionals in the field represent, is that change is possible. Change starts in the communities and outwards and upwards.”