Hampshire HOPE: Opioid prevention coalition turns 5


For the Gazette
Published: 6/26/2020 1:53:14 PM

As coordinator of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition, I bring people together to address one of the most urgent public health challenges of our time: the opioid overdose death epidemic. 

Hampshire HOPE draws people whose professional work brings them to the table; community volunteers, often people who have lost someone to opioid overdose; those in recovery; or people still using opioids. Whatever the impetus, it’s always apparent to me that passion and empathy drive them.

This month’s column was supposed to make note of our coalition’s five-year anniversary gala, when we planned to publicly celebrate our accomplishments. COVID-19 restrictions put that event on hold, but five years is a milestone, a chance to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going next.

Hampshire HOPE pulls people together from different sectors to build relationships where trust is key and values are discussed and aligned. Together, we shifted language, culture, awareness and, I believe, created broader community empathy for people dealing with substance use disorders and their families. This is the important work of reducing stigma — no small feat and never really fully achieved. When a coalition works well, this shift permeates through partner organizations that change culture and language and also set their own goals. Here are some other highlights from HOPE’s first five years:

■We helped envision and launch the Northampton Recovery Center, now an independent, peer-driven and state-funded entity preparing to move into new quarters on Armory Street. 

■We worked with the Academy of Music on “(In)Dependent: The Heroin Project,” which included community writing groups amplifying the voices of those impacted by opioid use disorder. Their writings are in a chapbook with images from Marvel Comics illustrator Marcus McLaurin. (Free copies are available through our website.) 

■Working with Tapestry Health, we educated residents and organizations about harm reduction, an evidence-based approach that combats stigma, increases community empathy and saves lives.

■We provided training for emergency room personnel, providers becoming certified to prescribe medication supported treatment and other key topics.

■We supported efforts, some already underway, focused on treatment within the criminal justice system, such as the Northwestern District Attorney’s Drug Diversion and Treatment Program and prerelease roundtables at Hampshire House of Corrections to better plan for people’s reentry into the community. 

■We distributed Narcan, offered countless community Narcan trainings and placed NaloxBoxes in public buildings.

■We launched and expanded our signature post-overdose response teams, the DART program, begun in Northampton and now in many other towns in Hampshire and Hampden counties. 

■We served as a platform for bereaved families to share their voices and create new support groups. 

■We worked with the DA’s office and other prevention partners on drug takeback initiatives, disposing of opioids to avoid misuse. Making sure youth don’t have access is a key strategy to prevent opioid misuse and addiction.

■With local youth prevention coalitions and schools, we provided training and support to school nurses and counselors to launch Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) and LifeSkills health curriculum.

In 2014, the year before Hampshire HOPE launched, there were 26 opioid overdose deaths in Hampshire County. In 2015 there were 16, followed by 36 in 2016, 28 in 2017, 37 in 2017 and 38 in 2019. While I wish I could be reporting a steady decrease in numbers, that’s not the reality we live with for a variety of reasons, including the presence of fentanyl, a highly deadly opioid in the current drug supply.

Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy. What we don’t know — and will never know — is how many deaths were prevented. I fear what the numbers might have been without the interventions launched by Hampshire HOPE and our numerous community partners.

As much as prevention work is informed by data, it’s also about more than data. An effective coalition brings about cultural change: dismantling stigma, humanizing people who use drugs and their families, supporting compassionate responses, cultivating recovery-friendly communities.  

As we look to our next chapter in uncharted territory, we have much work left to do. Systemic issues exacerbate the opioid overdose crisis, including disparities in housing, employment, trauma and health care access. In coming years, Hampshire HOPE will focus on these areas:

■In Massachusetts, the risk of opioid-related death following release from incarceration is more than 50 times greater than for the general public. We aim to better meet the unique needs of these individuals to save lives.

■Launch an effort responding to concerns substance use brings to the workplace.

■Enhance regional capacity for timely and comprehensive data collection through our public health data system.

■Because trauma plays a huge role in substance use disorders, we aim to work with other agencies to evolve into a trauma-informed Hampshire County.

■With strong public health evidence, help open a supervised consumption site.

Yes, we have far to travel. Along this road, it has been an honor to work hard on this urgent public health issue with so many others. I look forward to even more collaboration and creativity in the coming years. 

J. Cherry Sullivan has been coordinator of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition, run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department, since March 2015. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.
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