Community begins drug problem discussion

By on September 27, 2017

Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth speaks during the Drug Task Force meeting at Ephrata High School in Ephrata, PA on September 21, 2017. KIRK NEIDERMYER | LCW Correspondent Photographer

New task force holds first meeting

The Plummer family tried to run from the drug epidemic by moving from Ephrata to a different Lancaster County town.

However, it was too late to save son, Jonathan, who died of a drug overdose at age 18.

“I dealt with it for 15 years, until I said ‘okay, I got to get my kids out of here,’” said Laura Gusler Plummer. “We want to come home; this is my town. But we can’t.”

Plummer’s daughter, Jacey Varner, 14, goes to a different school now after losing her older brother.

“Before it happened, I know they said it was a big deal, but I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Jacey said. “I hope this will help.”

The Plummer family attended the first public meeting of a new drug task force group, “Ephrata Cares,” held last week in Ephrata Area High School’s auditorium.

More than 100 local residents came to hear drug-abuse-prevention professionals as they spoke to the problem, explaining current treatment options and possible preventive measures.

Bennett Mayer, of Akron, has a 23-year-old daughter who struggles with addiction issues, he said.

“It seems, you can use other drugs and they’re not as addictive, but heroin destroys lives,” Mayer said. “We should be teaching kids in school that drugs will kill you, plain and simple.

“They need this education at a very young age -no sugar coating – and parents need to know about it, too,” Mayer said. “This isn’t something you can play around with, like pot; this destroys your life.”

The kick-off was entitled, “Opioids: Where are we, where are we going.”

As Plummer listened to the story of a young woman lost to a drug overdose, she freely cried, saying she attended eight funerals in the last year, all drug-related deaths.

Several months ago, Ephrata’s Mayor Ralph Mowen decided it was time to take action and contacted people in the fields of drug and alcohol addiction programs, law enforcement, and medical professionals, hoping they could work together to at least put a dent in the problem of drug addiction and overdose deaths, even if not totally overcoming the issue.

Mowen realizes it’s an uphill battle: The Ephrata community may be ready to circle the wagons, but the problems are already inside.

“We have a real crisis here in this country and in this community,” Mowen said. “Twenty years ago we had a heroin crisis, but where we are today is worse.”

The evening’s first speaker brought statistics to back up that perception.

Chris Echterling, MD, is a board-certified family medicine practitioner and nationally recognized as an expert in drug addiction and treatment.

In the past year, South Central Pennsylvania has experienced a 442 percent increase in hospital overdose admissions relating to prescription drugs and a 305 percent increase in overdose admissions due to heroin, Echterling said.

Even looking at the all-time record highs, current data reflects that the problem is still expected to grow, he said.

Even now, neonatal intensive care units are seeing a significant increase in the number of newborn infants born with serious health problems due to their mothers’ addictions, Echterling added.

“Drug addiction is a personal tragedy, affecting far more than the person who is addicted; it affects the family, too,” Echterling said. “It’s a huge issue.”

Four out of five people struggling with addiction can trace their dependence back to prescription medications, he said.

To curb that, new guidelines for medical prescribers are being advised, so that opioids are not given as the first option for chronic pain.

“Addiction is when all else is put behind you and (the drug) is the only thing you care about,” Echterling said. “Addicts believe they need the drug as much as they need food and water. Drugs hijack the brain.”

Amy Sechrist, a certified prevention specialist with CompassMark, said children don’t all have the same risk for addiction; about 10 percent of kids will inherit a genetic predisposition to addiction.

Along the way, trauma or mental illness may trigger that predisposition.

That ten percent need to be identified so they can be given extra help and resources to prevent addiction, Sechrist said.

The younger they can be helped, the greater the chance an addiction can be prevented, she said.

Only so many options exist, Sechrist said, citing school, home, and church.

After-school programs that teach ‘people skills’ are one option, she said.

“Prevention is very cost-effective,” Sechrist said. “Using evidence-based prevention we can make sure there are resources for kids who are suffering already.”

Looking at treatment, Deb Bard, Drug and Alcohol director with T.W. Ponessa and Associates Counseling Services, said everybody uses denial and defenses so they don’t have to deal with something that they don’t want to face.

“Treatment is not magic, but miracles can happen,” Bard said. “This crisis is here and it’s not going anywhere. But we can help people to buy into the idea that they don’t have to live like this anymore, that things can be better.”

People want to recover, they just don’t know how, Bard said.

“If you are concerned about a friend or family member who you suspect might be using drugs, ask about their welfare, “Bard suggested. “Ask them ‘how are you doing,’ or ‘you look like you’re struggling,’ and see if they want to talk about it.”

They do have to reach the point where they are ready to accept help, she said.

Bard asked the audience to visualize an hour-glass shape, with ‘addiction’ at the top, ‘recovery resources’ at the bottom, and the choked-off middle as being the ‘stigma’ associated with drug addiction.

“People are ashamed to ask for help and that makes it difficult even if you want to change,” Bard said.

Support groups can sometimes loosen up the choke-hold of stigma, Bard said.

Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth said about 90 percent of all cases he sees in court involve drugs in some manner.

“I would much rather send someone to treatment than to jail,” Ashworth said. “There is help available; it’s not hopeless. If you know someone who needs help, please point them in the right direction.”

Panelist Kristin Varner said she has been in recovery since 2005.

More than 23.5 million people in the United States are in recovery, Varner said.

“We’ve heard about stigma and that keeps a lot of people in the shadows,” Varner said. “This is a disease that affects one in three families.”

Recovery is an amazing process, Varner said, adding that she is proof it can happen.

Before the program started, Dr. Scott Jackson and wife, Karen, discussed “Citygate,” a new resource that opened this past August for people who need someone to talk to.

“We’re open at all times to provide a listening ear and prayer,” Jackson said, adding that he and his wife are board members of the group.

Started by local churches, Citygate hopes to offer referrals to people looking for help.

Ephrata resident Jennifer Nolt was there to learn, she said.

“I have a ninth grader and I want to know what’s going on in our community,” Nolt said. “I hear so much and I am glad that someone is trying to do something about it.”

Tanya and Hector Rivera are both employed at the “retreat” drug and alcohol treatment center.

“We need education and awareness of the epidemic and drugs in general,” Tanya Rivera said. “We want to get the community’s feel of it and learn what’s going on in the schools.”

“We’d also like to educate ourselves more,” Hector Rivera said. “We want to find ways to help and to get involved.”

The next meeting of “Ephrata Cares” will be held Thursday, Oct. 5, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Wellspan at the Ephrata Health Pavilion. At that meeting, people will meet with ‘pillar’ groups and can decide how they would like to be involved.

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