This article and these photos first appeared in the Vail Daily on December 20, 2019.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton has joined a national social-media campaign to destigmatize opioid addiction and stem the tide of overdose deaths still plaguing Colorado, where there were 543 opioid-related deaths in 2018.
Tipton, who represents the western two-thirds of Eagle County and most of the rest of the state’s Western Slope, joined fellow Colorado Republican Ken Buck in backing the Stop Opioid Silence campaign created by Facebook and Center on Addiction + Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
“Speaking out on opioid abuse is the best way to ensure the public is aware of the options available to stop both prescription and illegal drug abuse,” Tipton said in a press release. “I am grateful for Facebook raising awareness of opioid addiction to so many Americans and am proud to take a stand to Stop Opioid Silence.”
Investing in treatment and recovery
According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, Colorado saw a modest decline in opioid-related deaths last year — from 573 in 2017 to 543 in 2018 — but a recently released crisis response plan from the Colorado Health Institute still recommends increased investment in treatment and recovery. And getting treatment means more open discussions about addiction.
Facebook is running the Stop Opioid Silence ads to hopefully get people to speak about their personal experiences with the ongoing crisis and remove some of the stigma. The ads provide resources and information and feature videos from lawmakers such as Tipton while also setting up a forum to safely share stories of addiction and recovery. The SOS campaign parallels the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health’s Lift the Label campaign.
“So few people get the help that they need, and there’s so much silence that shrouds this problem that we really want to just break open this issue and have a massive social-media campaign where people start talking about it,” said Marcia Lee Taylor, executive vice president of external and government relations for Center on Addiction + Partnership for Drug Free Kids.
Missing the signs
Taylor added that the holiday season can be a particularly emotional and lonely time for people suffering from addiction to opioids. While the epidemic has impacted millions of people across the nation, in every socioeconomic group, Taylor says people in mountain resort areas such as Eagle County often become addicted due to sports injuries.
“It is a very common pathway to opiate addiction,” Taylor said. “It’s really the first exposure that people have had, and but for that injury, but for that prescription, they probably would have never begun using opiates. That is something we hear all the time from families we work with.
And she adds that if a generally healthy, athletic person with no previous history of addiction begins abusing opioids, family members often miss the signs.
“People don’t pick up on the cues, seeing someone who they never would think would develop a problem,” she said. “They didn’t have maybe any of the other risk factors and they had never abused substances before, so [families] may not be as proactive about intervening.”
Vail Health’s pharmacies just this fall became the first in Colorado to offer Safe Rx’s Locking Pill Bottles for opioids and other controlled substances at no additional cost.
“The ongoing opioid crisis must be proactively addressed from multiple angles, and Vail Health is investing across all channels: education, awareness, prevention and recovery,” Vail Health President and CEO Will Cook said in a press release. “The Locking Pill Bottle is an effective safeguard, and it encourages education and discussion amongst our patients and the community on the dangers of certain medications.”
‘We have to get there’
Chris Lindley, executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, appreciates the focus of the national Stop Opioid Silence campaign on destigmatizing substance abuse in general.
“We’re very excited about all the recent attention and focus nationally and locally with what they’re doing … around the opioid crisis, because there’s a lot of underlying substance abuse issues that are going on — opioids being just one,” Lindley said. “But for this valley, we want to keep reminding the community that our substance challenge is really alcohol.”
As a former Denver firefighter, Lindley said opioid overdoses were fairly common in the city, with emergency responders administering the opioid-overdose treatment drug Narcan on a daily basis. Opioid overdoses are not nearly as common in Eagle County, he said.
Alcohol intoxication admissions at the Vail Health emergency room, on the other hand, have increased 332% over the last four years, he said.
“The case up here is every day we are battling significant substance abuse around alcoholism and alcohol abuse,” Lindley said. “And I hope we can focus some of these great resources that are coming out around opioids to focus on our problem, which is alcoholism.”
Colorado is one of several states suing the pharmaceutical industry and companies such as Purdue Pharma that manufacture and distribute opioids. The state rejected a settlement this fall.
Lindley is a big believer in overcoming the stigma of behavioral health and addiction issues, citing EVBH’s Long Live campaign.
“It’s really focused on destigmatizing all behavioral health conditions — not only alcoholism, or depression or anxiety, but even the more significant long-term behavioral health issues like schizophrenia, being bipolar, or someone that’s been abused or widowed or bullied,” Lindley said. “All of these issues that really hold people back and prevent them from going out and talking to each other and engaging in meaningful relationships and asking for help.”
A diagnosis of behavioral health and addiction issues should be treated like a cancer diagnosis, he adds. While it’s a terrible diagnosis and disease, everyone rallies around someone with cancer, holding fundraisers and bringing them casseroles.
“We don’t do any of that for behavioral health, and there’s no difference, so we have to get there,” Lindley said.