The moment finally came six years ago — Anne Cutter’s son wanted help for his addiction to “anything,” you name the drug.
But without treatment beds open, Cutter had to fight for days to keep him focused on recovery while shivering and shaking from withdrawal.
It was no use: His drug dealer showed up before a bed became available, and he got high again.
“I almost had him, and then it was too late,” Cutter said.
Six years later, treatment for substance abuse remains just as elusive for too many people, said Cutter and other panelists at a Community Conversation hosted by The Gazette and KKTV on the opioid epidemic.
The conversation came amid special reports by The Gazette in recent months detailing a mental health and behavioral health system in crisis across Colorado, with hundreds of thousands of Coloradans unable to access care in a hard-to-navigate system that’s often either unaffordable or inaccessible.
Cutter’s son survived that relapse, but he continues to struggle with his addiction. And too often, she said, Colorado’s treatment system is inadequate.
“I wish that there was more information out there for the common person who loves the addict to know what to do initially,” she said.
The latest Colorado Health Access Survey, which was released Wednesday by the Colorado Health Institute, found the problem is only getting worse.
According to the survey, about 95,000 people said they didn’t get needed substance abuse treatment, a 42% increase from 2017.
The survey also found about one in five adults in the state knew a loved one or close friend — or had themselves — taken a prescription painkiller without a prescription. And 11.7% of adult Coloradans were addicted to opioids, or knew a loved one or close friend who was.
At least another 10 to 20 years of work is needed to fully address the opioid epidemic, which has left thousands of people dead across Colorado over the last several years, said José Esquibel, associate director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.
He said more public funding is needed to address the opioid epidemic.
“We have to expand that access to treatment, and we have to help people into recovery,” he said.
One of the state’s biggest needs is medical detox facilities, which include clinicians who can help people safety wean themselves off a high while dealing with the painful effects of withdrawal, Esquibel said. He called the number of medical detox beds “inhumane.”
A more fundamental problem is the continued harm of stigma for people battling addiction, panelists said. It’s often exacerbated among minorities and marginalized communities, said Nathaniel Granger Jr., founder and director of Be REAL Ministries.
The survey released Wednesday also found stigma to be the main reason people didn’t get needed treatment for substance abuse. More than 7 in 10 respondents said they didn’t get needed treatment because they either did not feel comfortable talking about their personal problems or didn’t want anyone to find out they had a problem.
“It’s very important that we as a community recognize the stigma,” he says. “But also recognize the stigma is different, based on different groups.”
Drug overdose deaths across Colorado eased slightly in 2018 for the first time in years, led by a drop in prescription painkiller deaths that have been a root cause of the opioid epidemic.
Across the state, 974 people died from drug overdoses last year — a 38-person drop from the state’s record death toll set one year earlier in 2017, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It was the first decline for Colorado since 2012.
The slight drop was felt locally as well, as the number of drug fatalities in El Paso County dropped to 130 people from a high of 147 in 2017. It was the first drop in the county since 2009.
The number of El Paso County residents who died with opioids in their system eased from 92 in 2017 to 72 last year, the state health department reported.
Multiple panelists also voiced support for needle exchanges, which the El Paso County Board of Health has repeatedly rejected.
Amanda Smith, substance use disorder director for AspenPointe, said such exchanges have been proven effective for giving people access to treatment and addiction services.
Esquibel agreed — adding that they’re a proven public health strategy for reducing rates of bloodborne illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
“The thing is these folks who are using needles for illicit drugs, they’re finding needles anyway,” Esquibel said. “Why not at least keep them not only alive, but from passing along disease?”