After the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the nationwide opioid crisis, a new Connecticut law is designed to connect people with substance use disorders to helpful resources – and it’s inspired by an initiative launched in New London.

In Connecticut, the drug overdose death rate rose 15% in 2020 – 1,373 people died of overdoses in the state last year, up from 1,196 in 2019. Although the rate has increased slightly less in 2020 than in 2019 – when it jumped 17% from the previous year – it was still the deadliest year Connecticut has ever seen, according to state data.

The new law, signed by Governor Ned Lamont on Tuesday, will establish a series of pilot programs in five as yet unidentified communities to help people with substance use disorders through the use of “peer browsers.”

Navigators – people who have lived with substance use disorders themselves – will do community outreach to connect people who use opioids to resources for things like housing, medical treatment, social services and counseling. In New London, mariners have been battling the opioid crisis for years; Alliance for Living, a New London-based nonprofit, launched the region’s first boating program in 2018.

What makes the program different and works so well, said Carol Jones, director of harm reduction at Alliance for Living, is that browsers don’t demand treatment. And they know exactly what it’s like to be the person they’re trying to support.

“We approach people with support and develop relationships. We listen to people without judging and we don’t stigmatize people more than they already are or tell them what to do. We follow their example and let’s just tell them we want them to be safe, ”she said.

Mariners treat everyone with a holistic approach, ensuring that all of their basic needs are met whether or not they are considering quitting opioids immediately.

Legislation to bring sailors to other communities was introduced by State Representative Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, who said she was eager to expand the New London model to help even more state residents.

In Hartford, the legislation received unanimous and bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate, with all Southeast Connecticut lawmakers who voted for it supporting it.

Vulnerable people at risk

By law, programs will begin on January 1, 2022, and each pilot will have at least two peer navigators who will link residents with substance use disorders and providers of treatment, health care and therapy. social services ; address systemic barriers; and increase community support.

They come at a time when more Americans than ever could be struggling with opioid use in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Paul Christo, associate professor and pain specialist at the University. Johns Hopkins. Across the country, he said, the pandemic has caused hardship and trauma to millions of Americans, leading more and more people to turn – or return – to opioids.

Christo said that “vulnerable people who find themselves at a vulnerable point in their lives” are particularly sensitive, “and we have had a lot of vulnerable people during the pandemic.” The isolation, job loss and general stress of the pandemic, he said, hit people in two main areas: financially and emotionally.

“Economically … we have seen the underemployment, the unemployment, which has caused people to turn to these psychotropic substances to cope,” he said. “And at the same time, we’ve seen a lot of emotional trauma during the pandemic, people are seeing loved ones dying, being hospitalized, being on the verge of death. So a lot of people have turned to these substances to cope. There was a real disruption in coping skills for many people during the pandemic, it’s all about coping. “

These problems do not only affect people with drug prescriptions who were actively using at the start of the pandemic.

“I think we are seeing two groups of people affected, Christo said. “There are those who have recovered and two have relapsed from the pandemic. And we are seeing new groups of people who have never had an addiction disorder using these drugs to cope during a vulnerable and uncertain time. “

Christo said the key to helping people with substance use disorders is connection – connecting them to resources, support systems, treatment programs, medical providers and counseling – and make these things accessible through state and federal funding.

Jeanne Milstein, director of social services for New London, said she was proud of the city’s navigators for their work which can now help people elsewhere. “I’m really excited and so grateful to the mariners, it’s really their work that makes us a role model for the state,” she said. “And we hope we can save and restore more lives using this method.”

She thinks what makes their model different is exactly what Christo said is key: “It’s really about connecting and engaging with people,” she said.

The connection is what mariners have established in New London, then across the region and soon across the state. For Jones, too, this is the most important thing.

“I always say the opposite of addiction is connection; if you connect with things it helps you know you matter,” Jones said.

She said that a key part of the browser program is the fact that it is peer-led. Each navigator has their own unique experience with substance use disorders and can relate to the challenges faced by the people they help.

Although they have been successful here, they know there are still a lot of people who need help. “We know we’re doing a good job, but we also know that people still die and people still overdose,” Jones said.

Plans are also in place to extend the navigation program to New London.

The city has allocated funds for a new program, slated to launch in the fall, which will be run by a community or non-profit organization. This will be a public safety and mental health initiative where mariners will work with people with mental health issues who have been involved in interactions with the police. The goal is to reduce the number of interactions with the police, Milstein said.

She said the initiative was a collaborative effort, inspired by Alliance for Living and similar programs in other cities.

She hopes that one day this new program can also be a model for the state and that New London can continue to be at the forefront of tackling the opioid crisis and reducing the stigma associated with related disorders. substance use and mental illness.

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