Forecaster Forum: Parents' perspective on the addiction crisis: A call for care, compassion

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Addiction to opiates has reached epidemic proportions in Maine. This crisis extends beyond the suffering experienced by individuals, into the heart of our communities. It demands a comprehensive approach that increases access to and integrates mental, behavioral, physical, and social health.

As parents, we know this crisis first-hand.

Our son is 23 and in recovery from addiction to heroin. He developed this addiction over time, starting in late high school through the use of marijuana and alcohol. He struggled with depression and anxiety and, like many with co-occurring conditions, progressed from what seemed to be occasional use, to self-medication, to addiction.

Many who do not know us or our son might say “another case of a bad kid,” or “this could never happen to us.”

But before you judge, understand that our son was a regular kid: he played three varsity sports, was an average student, volunteered in the community, and went on to college. We, too, thought this could never happen to us. But it did, and his addiction and related depression and anxiety contributed to his dropping out of college, losing jobs, and medical problems, including some which were life-threatening.

Thankfully, because of his desire to change, coupled with understanding and support from family and friends, he is working at recovery. Through all of this, we have taken the time to learn about the problems of addiction and mental illness so that we can not only better help our son, but also help others.

We have learned that addiction is a significant problem with lethal implications. Our son not only lost opportunities for education and work, but also nearly died. He lost friends who had not been fortunate to sustain recovery and died from addiction. We have learned that addiction is complex, and demands comprehensive approaches.

Addiction and mental illness often are co-occurring and both are often accompanied by physical health issues. We have learned to respect that recovery is a long process and there are no quick fixes. We have learned that setbacks and relapses are common on the road to successful recovery.

We have also become acutely aware that Maine lacks capacity for adequate treatment, including in-patient and out-patient facilities and services across the spectrum of addiction and mental health. Having some place to turn can depend on where you live, your income, and insurance. And even then there are typically long waiting lists.

Based on what we have learned, we offer the insight to alleviate this crisis.

First, we need to be compassionate. If this can happen in our family, it can happen in yours. There are many paths to addiction, and judging people as to how and why they got there exacerbates stigma and an “us vs. them” culture that impedes solutions.

Second, we need to educate, communicate, and maintain dialogue. This is not a problem that people freely talk about. At first we were reluctant to share our story. We soon found that education and discussion creates deeper and more widespread understanding; it reduces stigma and helps those in need.

Finally, addiction is a health issue and, like other health issues, with the right help it can be successfully treated. Because this problem is complex, comprehensive and integrated health-care approaches are needed.

This requires increased access to health insurance. We are fortunate to have health insurance coverage to help our son; many in Maine are not as fortunate. Maine can do more to resolve this problem.

Over the past several years Maine has rejected hundreds of millions in federal funding that could help expand access to all kinds of health treatment, including dollars that could help create greater capacity for addiction treatment. In the recent session, lawmakers had yet another opportunity to extend coverage, but faced a veto by Gov. Paul LePage. This is yet another lost opportunity to help Maine people and begin to reverse the addiction crisis.

We, as parents, are grateful that we have been able to help our son as he works at recovery towards a healthy and independent life. We only wish the same opportunity could be shared by all who are willing to try.

Jim and Joanne Damicis live in Scarborough.

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