Kuster talks opioid crisis

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, District 2, talks with Aly McKnight, an alumnus of the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley, during her tour of the club last week. Later, Kuster led a panel discussion about opioid prevention and education.

MILFORD – Addiction is a long-term, chronic illness and what makes it so hard to cure is that the organ you need to treat the illness, the brain, is the organ affected, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster said during a panel discussion about the opioid crisis at the Boys & Girls Club last week.

Kuster, District 2, is the founder and co-chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Bipartisan Heroin Task Force.

New Hampshire may lead the country in the number of deaths from heroin and opioid use, but it might also “lead the country out of it by innovative solutions,” she said.

Heroin use is an untreated mental health issue, she said, and the state of New Hampshire doesn’t have the facilities treat it.

“In the 1980s, there were a thousand beds for drug and alcohol treatment. … Now we have only 250,” she said, for a population that has grown to 1.3 million.

“Access gets worse and worse,” she said, but there are hopeful signs: programs like Safe Stations, started by the Nashua fire chief, in which addiction is treated as a medical, not a legal issue. Or the treatment model adopted by Ross Cunningham when he was superintendent of corrections for Sullivan County that drastically cut recidivism.

Boys & Girls Club Director Michael Goodwin served on Gov. Charlie Baker’s task force when he worked in Massachusetts.

“We have to do more,” he said and talked about efforts to get a prevention program called SMART (Skills Mastery and Resiliancy Training) Moves off the ground and running in all the clubs in the state.

State Rep. Joelle Martin (D-Milford) described how more than 40 community groups are partnering with the Boys & Girls Club’s CAST (Community Action for Safe Teens) program to prevent addiction by strengthening families.

The Souhegan club is a safe, positive place for kids, said program director Corey Sullivan, and it recently started a suicide prevention program and a STEAM (Science Technology Art Math) coordinator.

Paul Sontag, pastor of Milford’s Light of the World Church, said he learned the value of collaboration from Monica Gallant, the Boys & Girls Club’s director of prevention services.

“She is the right person for the right job,” he said. Until recently the local faith community has seemed “somewhat absent” in the opioid fight, but there has been a sudden change for the good, including the churches’ involvement with CAST, and noted the success of the club’s Resiliancy Retreat, for 8 to 14-year-olds who are affected by a loved one’s drug or alcohol use,

Schools have seen a significant increase in mental health issues that lead to drug misuse, said Amherst Middle School Principal Porter Dodge.

More of his time is taken up by their problems, and more children are absent from school because of anxiety and a lack coping skills and resiliancy.

“The number who require intervention is much greater,” he said. Some are injuring themselves – cutting themselves, and winding up in emergency rooms. There is a “staggering” number of children who have a mental-health related diagnoses and who are medicated with heavy drugs.

School social workers and psychologist are “working straight out. They are swamped,” he said, and blamed it on the culture.

“It’s not about the parenting, it’s the time,” he said, wishing he could take children’s phones away.

Shelby Houghton, a Boys & Girls Club alumnus, was twice named Youth of the Year and is Milford High School’s senior class president.

She talked about growing up in a violent, manipulative home where drugs and alcohol ruled, and how lucky she was to have the club. A club staff member was the first person, other than police, she told about her home life.

“It would have been very easy for me to fall into addiction,” she said, at times struggling not to cry.

Instead, she is “very hopeful and excited” to be attending the University of Connecticut in the fall.

“Nothing can replace what the Boys & Girls Club did,” she said.

Kuster talked about her own family’s problems with addiction, including a great grandfather who drowned in a canal, and the newspaper story noted that he was “known to frequent taverns.” Her grandfather, on the other hand, started a large furniture company in Milford and went on to be governor of New Hampshire.

“He had resiliancy. He had people who believed in him,” she said.

Milford’s schools superintendent, Robert Marquis, called trouble kids “symptom bearers” of a troubled culture.

In addition to adding mental health staff at the schools, he said, “we try to create a lot of positive experiences for kids.” Creating community connections and “breaking down silos is the only way to get ourselves out of this,” he said.

Milford Police Chief Michael Viola talked about how law enforcement is changing and becoming more conscious of the mental health aspects of people’s behavior.

The silver lining to this “terrible epidemic,” Kuster said, wrapping up the hour-long discussion, is how relationships among community groups are getting stronger as they battle it.

Addiction is an ‘equal opportunity illness,’ like Alzheimer’s disease, she said, and “Milford is way ahead” in dealing with it.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.