The opioid addiction crisis has taken a hard toll on Connecticut families.
According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Connecticut residents are more likely to die from unintentional drug overdose than a motor vehicle accident. As the depth and scope of the opioid crisis intensifies – more than 830 Connecticut residents died last year from a pharmaceutical overdose – a new program places a focus on those who are often overlooked: the family members and relatives of those with addiction.
Sound Community Services, a local nonprofit specializing in outpatient programs, counseling and support, recently received a $16,000 grant from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to run an educational and support group for the families who have a loved one dealing with opioid addiction. For Rachael Mullen, a substance abuse clinical coordinator at the agency, the absence of family support can complicate efforts for an addict to achieve recovery. And misinformation about the nature of addiction can leave loved ones feeling anxious, frustrated, and helpless, with many unanswered questions.
“In order to heal, we need to have the whole system involved,” Mullen said.
The families of opioid addicts often carry their own burdens by either blaming themselves for the problem or by not getting help due to guilt or discomfort, she explained.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” she said. “But this has become a shame-based disease. And our society, unfortunately, perpetuates the shame to the point where people feel humiliated and embarrassed.”
The free program consists of 10 sessions held Monday nights at the agency’s 21 Montauk Ave. offices. “You don’t have to attend all 10 sessions,” explained Nicole Hayes, a clinician and substance abuse counselor at the nonprofit. “However, there is a 20-person limit per session.”
Hayes explained that each session is conducted “like a class and support group at the same time,” and various aspects of identifying and addressing opioid addiction are addressed at length. “Family members get to learn about available resources, how to identify the signs of withdrawal, how to understand the difference between negative enabling versus healthy enabling, and learn about ways to approach a person using without causing a lot of conflict,” she said, adding that instruction is also provided on how to use the opioid overdose blocking and reversal medicine Narcan.
Addiction distorts a person’s values and behavior. Part of the curriculum teaches family members how to observe healthy boundaries and navigate the emotional territory of active addiction. “There is a huge amount of manipulation and dishonesty with addiction,” Mullen explained. “The addicts say to themselves: ‘In order to get by my needs met, I have to manipulate.’ And the parents [and other family members] say to themselves: ‘What if I say no, refuse to give them give money or allow them in the house? What kind of parent am I?’”
Mullen also noted that the agency opted for a group approach that would build a self-empowering community, since one-on-one counseling can be isolating. “Statistics show an addiction group treatment works best,” she said. “You need the support of others. When I sit with other families, I know that I’m not alone in this.”
Amy Faenza, a clinical social worker at the agency, discovered that many families were approaching the challenge of dealing with an addicted loved one with the best of intentions but the worst of results.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” she said, pointing to the popular A&E reality television series “Intervention” as offering the wrong lessons in identifying and helping addicts. “That is not something we’d utilize any way in real life. People are very, very well intended and they think that they’re helping. But this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And how would you know how to deal with this if you’re not in the field or have not dealt with it before?”
The grant funding for the program will allow the agency to coordinate sessions through April, and efforts are underway to recruit and train a team of local volunteers who can assume the responsibility for running the sessions indefinitely. But Faenza acknowledged that things are off to a slow start.
“We are not getting the numbers we’ve hoped for,” she said. “This is something that is hard to talk about and hard to get people to talk about.”
Nonetheless, Faenza and her colleagues are working via social media and their professional connections to build awareness. “We see that people are hurting,” Faenza said. “We are finding not just one type of person or family – we cannot single out one demographic. We really need to get the community involved.”
For more information on the Opioid Education Family Support Group or to enroll in an upcoming session, contact Jason Hyatt at 860-941-7252. For more information on Sound Community Services offerings and programs, visit www.soundcommunityservices.org or call 860-439-6400.