In Travis Byrd’s three years as director of Hope Center Ministries, a drug addiction treatment center in Axton, he had not seen any deaths from overdose from people who have been involved in the program there — but during the first month of the pandemic, he was aware of four.
All four were people who had started the year-long residential treatment program but left early, he said. He had been seeing them regularly at church even after they left the treatment program.
“It’s like when everything shut down, they lost their connections to things,” he said. “I can only assume they started using more often” once the pandemic hit and isolation began, “or maybe they weren’t using at all and relapsed.”
“I have the impression that it’s been harder for people” during the pandemic, said Jeremiah Grogg, a lead counselor at Spero Health in Martinsville. “There’s been a lot of isolation that’s been happening. We’re very social creatures as people, so isolation is really hard for us just in general.
“Some of the things that happen with the disease of addiction can be very isolating for people. It’s a double-whammy. It compounds upon itself. Addiction pushes people away, and they lose meaningful connections.
“It’s a really important task in addiction treatment, to help them rebuild and restore their relationships.”
Southside Virginia has long been recognized as one of the areas of highest drug addictions in the nation, and the isolation of the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters.
Meanwhile, the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center and the Pittsylvania County 911 Center have created mental health databases for residents and businesses to provide voluntarily relevant information that can assist first responders during an emergency — and, often that emergency springs from drug addictions.
The database “will equip first responders with pertinent records to find appropriate solutions for those suffering from a mental health crisis or emergency,” a news release from the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center states.
The city of Martinsville has the nation’s second-highest per-capita rate for the most opioid pain pills prescribed between 2006 and 2012, based on information in a database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that was made public in 2019.
The area remained in the national spotlight for drug addictions with Beth Macy’s 2018 book “Dopesick,” which looked at the problem of opioid addiction, focusing on high-problem areas such as Henry County.
Throughout 2020, simplistic yard signs offering Suboxone and methadone for $1 per day were on display across Martinsville and Henry County, despite the fact that the Federal Drug Administration has strict laws prohibiting such drug promotions. Those are drugs used in Medication Assisted Therapy to help people recover from addictions.
Grogg has been with Spero’s Martinsville clinic since it opened in August 2020. That clinic is fully dedicated to people with “substance abuse disorder,” he said. Spero has dozens of locations across the Midwest, but its only two clinics in Virginia are in Martinsville and Petersburg.
“We try to do the wraparound care for our patients: look at their physical health, more general mental health as well as their substance abuse issues,” he said. “Anxiety, depression and anger management” often go hand-in-hand with substance abuse.”
The main source of addictions in people he has seen are opioids, which include pain control medications and heroin, Grogg said. Also, “we see a lot of stimulant abuse,” from drugs such as cocaine.
“Spero provides medication-assisted treatment here, called ‘MAT,’” Grogg said. “We feel strongly it’s effective, and the research is very consistent. It’s the gold standard in helping people reach recovery goals.” It is used in conjunction with mental health counseling and group therapy for success.
Overcoming an addiction takes time, he said, and a variety of methods. “It could be as long as 5 to 10 years. We might just be one step on their journey,” Grogg said.
Rasheeda Crowder is the interim director of Addiction Recovery Treatment and Services in Danville and the director of Epic in Martinsville.
“We have seen an uptick, definitely, during the pandemic,” she said. Drug addiction “can be a symptom of other mental health issues.”
Because people couldn’t “blow steam” through traditional means such as going out or seeing friends, she said, many turned to substance abuse instead.
“We saw new people starting habits.” That included drinking alcohol more, and earlier in the day, than before: “That five o’clock time comes earlier and earlier. Next thing you know, you’re drinking at noon.”
When the structure of going to work and school is removed, “they’re left to their own devices. If they don’t have good coping skills, this is what happened across the state.”
Byrd said 20 men, mostly from Pittsylvania, Henry and Patrick counties and the cities of Martinsville and Stuart, live at the Hope Center for a year during their time of recovery.
“We’ve definitely seen changes” during the pandemic, he said. “We’re very dependent upon counseling. When COVID started, our certified counselors had to do all of their counseling over Zoom,” and the residents missed seeing them in person.
It also was difficult for the residents in recovery not to be able to see their families or go to church, he said.
Byrd said people in general should do “whatever we could do to get past this pandemic, not only for the safety of people who may battle the coronavirus but also the mental health that goes along with it, suicide — people need connection. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
In 2019, Piedmont Community Services helped 1,000 people with substance abuse disorders across its coverage area of Martinsville and the counties of Henry, Patrick and Franklin, said Sharon Buckman, the clinical services director at Piedmont Community Services.
“The opioid epidemic receives a lot of focus because of the high number of overdoses,” she wrote by email. “We have been expanding our ability to help individuals access medication assisted treatment, because that is best practice for treatment of opioid use disorder. There is a growing number of other providers of this type of care in our community.
“Alcohol is and has been the substance that the largest number of individuals we serve identify as their primary problem, followed by marijuana. Stimulants including cocaine, crack and methamphetamine are third, followed by opioids and opiates including heroin.
“What does seem to be different in the past year is that people have been delaying their decision to come in for services. Their symptoms are more severe by the time they ask for help. We have seen an increase in the number of people we evaluate for involuntary hospitalization due to psychotic symptoms caused by use of methamphetamines. This is definitely contributing to the state’s psychiatric bed crisis. Nationally, there has been an increase in deaths from drug overdose, and locally we have also seen an increase in problems often associated with substance use, including domestic violence.
“Piedmont continues to expand our workforce of Peer Recovery Support Specialists who go the extra mile to encourage people to engage in treatment. Peers are people who have lived experience with a substance use disorder or mental health symptoms, and who have achieved sustained recovery. Support from people who have worked their way through similar challenges gives people hope for themselves. … Despite the pandemic, treatment still works.”
Piedmont Community Services has “office-based opioid treatment in all three of its clinics” at 24 Clay Street in Martinsville, 22280 Jeb Stuart Highway in Stuart and 30 Technology Drive in Rocky Mount.
Danville-Pittsylvania Community Services has more than 270 staff members and an annual operating budget of more than $17 million, its website states. In Fiscal Year 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available, the agency served 5,488 people through behavioral health and developmental services, and “Prevention services reached 24,980 citizens of Pittsylvania County and Danville City.”
Neither Danville-Pittsylvania Community Services Executive Director Jim Bebeau nor Director of Behavioral Health Services Sandy Irby responded to requests for comment.
The new databases for the 911 centers will include information on behavioral health illnesses, mental health illnesses, developmental or intellectual disabilities or brain injuries, and all information will remain confidential. It will not be shared with any other entity, the release states.
The database is created as part of the Marcus-David Peters Act, which “aims to provide behavioral health responses to behavioral health emergencies and reduce negative outcomes involving use of force in law enforcement interactions when an individual is experiencing a behavior health crisis related to a mental health, substance use, or developmental disability,” according to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services website.
“The bill was largely the result of an advocacy effort led by the family of Marcus-David Peters, a young, Black, biology teacher who was shot by Richmond police in 2018 in the midst of a mental health crisis,” the website states.
“Whenever we dispatch first responders, it is important that we are sending the right people for the job,” said J.R. Powell, director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center. “If someone is having a mental health crisis, they may not always need a police officer. Sometimes that escalates the problem rather than improving the situation. The database allows for people to come to us ahead of time and share that mental health information so the dispatcher will know who to send.”
Once the information is received, any future calls to the 911 center from the address or phone number will automatically trigger the information to be displayed to dispatchers, to help them in their response.
The information can be provided by the individual with the illness or his or her parent or legal guardian. Information on any minor will be removed from the database when he or she turns 18 years old. To submit information, visit the 911 webpage under www.henrycountyva.gove/marcusalert. A paper copy of the form can be requested by calling the 911 Center nonemergency number at 276-632-1197.
At the Pittsylvania County 911 Center, “We have added the Marcus Alerts in our computer aided dispatch system for all those that voluntarily notified us. This list will continue to expand as others become familiar with it and voluntarily ask to be added,” 911 Manager Ronnie Fowler said.
To be added to the Pittsylvania County’s Marcus List call its 911 Center Non-Emergency Line at 434-432-7931.
A call and an email Friday to the Danville 911 Center were not answered.
Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at email@example.com