August 12, 2016
By now, you’ve heard the statistic. If every New Jerseyan addicted to heroin today lived in one place, it would be New Jersey’s fourth-largest city. With a population of 128,000, “Herointown” – as the Star-Ledger dubbed it – would feature people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
The truth is, Herointown is all around us, as New Jersey faces a heroin and opioid epidemic that has already killed more than 5,000 of our fellow residents. The epidemic knows no boundaries – nearly all of our communities are affected, and many of us know family members, friends and business associates who are dealing with the problem in some way.
Given the breadth of this public health crisis, the Community Foundation’s Leadership Committee in 2015 looked for ways to offer some concrete, valuable intervention, leveraging its own gift to attract other support for an overlooked dimension to the opiate problem. We invite you to join us in this effort – by clicking the boxes at right – to stem the tide of the opiate epidemic and help addicts and their families fully recover.
With support from fundholders and other partners inspired by our Changemaker work, the Community Foundation made a grant to the Mental Health Association in New Jersey to ensure its recovery helpline for addicts and their families would extend six months after other funding had run out. Filling this gap proved crucial, as the line would have otherwise been shuttered despite the escalating demand.
A Helpline for Individuals and Families
NJ Connect for Recovery (NJCR) is a support, outreach, and education service designed to help individuals and families living through the heroin and opiate epidemic. Trained peer counselors provide a unique level of support that combines skilled substance use counseling with the perspective of shared experience: each of the counselors are either in recovery themselves or a family member with a history of dealing with the recovery of a loved one. NJCR is the only service designed to meet this growing need.
Demand for NJCR services, which were launched in 2015, has steadily increased to over 20 calls per day. Operating 40 hours a week between 12 noon and 8 pm, Monday through Friday, the average length of a call is over 25 minutes. That length is three times the average for most information and referral services. This extra time gives callers and counselors the chance to deal with the immediate crisis, but also connect on a personal, peer-to-peer level.
This personal touch is what sets NJCR apart from other helplines. The peer staff works with callers to:
- identify and link them to services,
- strategize how family members can best be supportive,
- advocate on their behalf and empower families,
- provide guidance about how the system works (public and private insurance), and
- encourage them to call back with questions and ongoing support.
Callers come from all walks of life and all 21 of New Jersey’s counties.
Stories of Success
Below are just two of many stories that reflect the human tragedy of callers and the positive difference NJCR makes on a daily basis. Peer counselors shared these stories with CFNJ in their own voice:
Mrs. C. called in one evening, desperate. Her son, an adult now and in full blown substance abuse disorder, is lost. She does not know who he is. And she is suffering. His life, or what she says is left of his life of great potential, is tragic. He lives for getting high. Her desperation and reasons for calling, however, do not have to do with his addiction or need for help. Rather, Mrs. C. has called because her life, her thoughts, her daily experience, has become unrecognizable to her, like a story she read or a movie. She cannot believe what she has become as a result of her ongoing, co-dependent relationship with her son. Mrs. C. is at the point where she is breaking. I can feel it – it is like tightness in my chest, and I recognize my own sadness, having experienced some of this in my own life – and I’m thinking, this is part of empathy – and we dive in.
Mrs. C. elaborates on her situation, and it’s familiar to us on NJ Connect: an adult child, ambition gone and character changed, mind warped, brain chemistry altered and daily existence tragic, and living off his parents’ fixed income. They are funding his life of abuse. They experience his jail time, his injuries, his thieving, his sorrow and pain, his explosive rants, the physical pain of efforts at self-detoxification, the arrogance, the lying, and watching him disappear, replaced by someone else. She is trapped – and she, in her own words, thinks that she is going crazy. Mrs. C.’s anxiety and fear, guilt (as she resents her son) and the shred of hope she still clings to wreak havoc on her. She reports that she is co-dependent; she believes that she has to do “all these things” for him because if she doesn’t, she doesn’t know what will happen to him. She is almost seeing the truths, that co-dependency and enabling hurts them both, that there is a way to detach and still love him. However, doing it is another issue altogether.
Over time, Mrs. C. becomes a repeat caller and I develop a relationship and we work through the challenge of taking care of her. Rebuking toxic thoughts like she is a bad mother if she doesn’t help him. She learns to cut loose from manipulation and the shackles of guilt and what might have been. She learns to stay in the moment, to take her life back. Mrs. C. knows her life is worth living and she can be alright regardless of what her son does. Every day, calls come in from people that are desperate and in great pain. I leave every day knowing that what we do matters. It matters to me, to the team, and most of all to the family members and other concerned persons who felt (and still do feel) lost for so long in the damage of this disease.
A young man called the line looking for help with getting into an outpatient program. He stated that he was 22 years old and addicted to MDMA (Molly). Caller continued saying that he had been using for about 3 years and was currently on probation for burglary. The caller stated that he had tried an outpatient program once before, but had not completed it. I asked the caller how was his motivation for change different this time as opposed to the time when he didn’t complete the program. Caller stated that he bought on the street recently a drug called flaka (bath salts) thinking that he was buying molly. He stated that the reaction to the drug was so violent and overwhelming that he thought that he was coding. He called an ambulance to get emergency care because he thought he was going to die. In the hospital was where he found out that he had actually bought flaka instead of molly. His probation officer finding out that he had used was another concern and he felt that being in treatment would keep him from being locked up for violating his probation.
I talked to the caller about addiction being a brain disease which affects behaviors and knowing what his triggers and cues were would help to keep him from using. We also talked about levels of care and I explained to the caller that outpatient treatment may not be a high enough level of care and explained to the caller the difference between an inpatient and outpatient program. Lastly, I gave the caller the name and number of a counselor at Eva’s village who worked in the men’s residential program so that the caller could get additional information about an inpatient program. Since the caller had Medicaid, I talked to him about NJ Addictions Hotline and transferred him for an assessment and possible placement.
Since its launch in January of 2015, NJCR has become the focal point in identifying and supporting the needs of families impacted by the heroin epidemic. Through its peer-to-peer counseling and support via the helpline, its outreach, and its education component in the recovery, NJCR has become a leading voice focusing light on the needs of the family.
CFNJ staff remain committed to uncovering effective ways to leverage funding to fight New Jersey’s opiate epidemic.
At the start of 2016, after convening a group of parties interested in broadening awareness of the opiate issue, we became actively involved in the NJ Opiate Epidemic Working Group, led by NJTV and with participation from a host of organizations involved in the prevention, treatment and research of opiate addiction. To date, NJTV has convened two community forums exploring and discussing aspects of the crisis; these meetings in South Jersey and Piscataway have been well-attended and have attracted dialogue and increased understanding.
What is clear is that there is great need at all points along the opiate addiction continuum: more funding is needed to support prevention and education, more treatment facilities are needed to respond to the surge in abuse, particularly for low-income individuals who do not have any or adequate insurance coverage, and much more is needed to support successful recovery and a return to employment and society for addicts for the longer term.
The particularly intractable nature of opiate addiction – to much purer, more potent and deadly forms of the drug – makes relapse more likely and more potentially deadly. Giving families and recovering users hope through NJ Connect is one discrete way the Community Foundation of New Jersey can help.
Click the boxes at right to join us in stopping this epidemic and helping New Jersey families recover. With your support, we can make a meaningful difference.