Big Ideas from a Small Town
Have you heard of Huntington, West Virginia? Me neither. It’s one of the largest cities in WV, but doesn’t make the news much. Its citizens are normal people, content to go about their day and live lives of quiet purpose.
Huntington is also in the midst of a public health crisis. The city, the largest in Cabell County, has been at the epicenter of heroin abuse for a few years now. There have been over 200 overdoses in Cabell County since the start of 2015. Twenty-four of these resulted in death.
It’s safe to say Huntington, West Virginia is battling its demons. They’re battling pretty hard and, in doing so, may just come up with some ideas to help the rest of the country.
In late April, a group of community leaders came together to brainstorm an effective drug abuse prevention plan. Equal parts harm reduction and treatment, these men and women have laid the groundwork for some truly remarkable changes to take place.
Their immediate concerns? Preventing an HIV outbreak similar to the one raging across Indiana and stopping a recent Hepatitis C outbreak sweeping across Appalachia.
When coming up with ideas to address these two problems, the community realized it needed more than a quick fix. They realized they needed a comprehensive plan of action which addressed all areas of drug abuse, addiction, and recovery.
A New Approach to Drug Abuse
So, what did these concerned citizens and community leaders come up with? A whole host of ideas! They discussed everything from increased childhood and adolescent education to increased harm reduction support to increased access to treatment.
Particular ideas included: creating a realistic educational curriculum for schools, mobilizing children and adolescents, organizing a database of local resources (spaces for twelve-step meetings, vehicles to help transport those in early recovery, volunteers for local events, etc.), faith-based help, life skills training, and increased transitional/sober housing.
This meeting also tackled the idea of a syringe exchange program. While this type of harm reduction offers some major benefits to addicts and their loved ones (think putting an end to the spread of blood borne diseases), it also offers other, more unique, community benefits.
In addition to giving addicts access to sterile hypodermic syringes, the program would act as a gateway for those seeking treatment. It would also allow the local government to gather data about drug trends and streamline their resources to be the most effective.
Tim Hazelett, the administrator of the local health department, praised various community groups working together towards a common goal. “Progress is defined as all horses pulling in the same direction at the same time,” he said (Herald-Dispatch). Hazelett also noted that this type of organization and sharing of resources and information is critical to future success.
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Community Action is Critical!
This idea of direct, community-centered action is interesting and one I’d like to explore in greater detail. Think about it – addiction and recovery are different in different parts of the country. What works in, say, New York may not work in West Virginia.
So, I like the idea of individual communities mobilizing to fight drug abuse. They can offer those at risk, and those in active addiction, specific types of help. They can then share this information with other communities, providing a unique model for recovery that may be more effective than what’s currently in place.
Those currently fighting the good fight in Huntington echo this sentiment. Karen Yost, Executive Director of the Prestera Center, a local behavioral health program, had the following to say,
“When it affects every facet of the community, every facet of the community has to be involved in the solution…It’s more broadly based, and the mayor has come out and declared war. He’s marshaled his troops. We’re his troops” (Herald-Dispatch).
The community’s late April meeting included all these “troops.” There were individuals present from the health field, the government, and the religious and recovery communities.
This model for treating addiction is one that could have unimagined success. After all, this disease thrives on isolation and antisocial behavior. To bring an entire community together, to have individual sections within that community offering their unique help, that’s truly something.
To put it another way – a town scrambling for any solution to local drug abuse, and the massive impact it’s had on their community, may have come up with the solution we’ve all been waiting for.