Massachusetts Overdose Rates Highlight Need For Treatment

By The Fix staff 03/13/17

“There’s this mistaken notion that people have to hit bottom and work hard to prove that they’re motivated...We’ve learned that model kills people.”

A group therapy session with a young woman standing and smiling while others clap.

In 2016, about 2,000 Massachusetts residents died from opioid overdoses. With drugs now killing five times the number of people who die in car accidents, the need for treatment in Massachusetts is at an all-time high.

A report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that opioids were confirmed as the cause of 1,465 deaths and suspected in 514 additional deaths. Many of the deaths involved fentanyl. The rate of fentanyl overdoses rose last year, even as the rates of heroin and prescription drug overdoses fell, according to The Boston Globe

The rise in fentanyl is particularly concerning since addicts may not be aware of the potency of the product that they are using. Cheryl Zoll, chief executive of Tapestry, a Western Massachusetts health care group that provides medical services and clean syringes to addicts, believes that the numbers show that addicts are using more deadly drugs, not that more people are using drugs overall.

“People struggling with substance use disorder are facing a poison they can’t identify,” she said, referring to fentanyl.

With death rates from opioid skyrocketing, it is more important than ever that addicts in Massachusetts seek out quality opioid treatment programs.

Last year, another report found that only 49 percent of people who enter opioid treatment in Massachusetts finish their treatment program. That statistic reflects the complex realities of treating opioid addiction in the state.

“This is such a difficult issue to tackle in its entirety,” State Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, told The Boston Globe. “I tell people all the time, I feel I should have a picture of a wagon wheel on my wall because every time I think I got it, another spoke pops up — something we didn’t think would happen, and someone is living through it. It’s a different kind of war on drugs.”

Despite the rising death tolls, officials and medical professionals say that the statistics would be even more alarming if Massachusetts had not invested so much in fighting addiction and reducing stigma.

“If it weren’t for the investment that the state has made, the numbers would be much worse,” said Dr. Alexander Y. Walley, an addiction specialist at Boston Medical Center.

The 2016 numbers represent a 13 percent increase over deaths in 2015. Although that is still a significant increase, it represents a slow down in the trend. From 2014 to 2015, death rates rose 21 percent.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has increased addiction spending from $120 million to $180 million since 2015.

The administration “will continue our intense focus on fighting this epidemic by further increasing treatment options and expanding support for law enforcement and their efforts to arrest and convict drug traffickers who prey on vulnerable people, selling them more and more deadly and addictive substances,” Governor Baker said in a statement.

Despite that, medical professionals, families and people struggling with addiction know that accessing quality treatment in Massachusetts can be extremely challenging, especially for people who are looking to get treatment earlier on in their addiction, before they have hit so-called rock bottom.

“There’s this mistaken notion that people have to hit bottom and work hard to prove that they’re motivated,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, an addiction specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We’ve learned that model kills people.”

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