Though opioid overdose deaths were declining in Nassau County just before the coronavirus pandemic, the ensuing health crisis has resulted in a bump in substance abuse of all kinds that is now the focus of the Committee on Drug Abuse at the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence.
In 2018 there were 153 opioid overdose deaths in the county, and a year later the number dropped to 112, according to statistics from Healthny.gov. But drug abuse was clearly not disappearing: In 2018 there were 327 outpatient emergency department visits for overdoses, and a year later that total had increased to 386.
Portia Robinson, who directs the Committee on Drug Abuse program, not only oversees the community center’s staff of paid counselors and their work with clients, much of it mandated by the courts, but does some of the counseling herself.
“We do diverse types of counseling,” she explained. “We do group, family, psychological and social counseling. The goal is to work to address the addiction and the behavior and the emotions all at the same time. We have a huge [driving while intoxicated] program, and we offer individual sessions. We have a medical director who does all our addiction assessments and intake. This is a non-intensive outpatient clinic, and we have the ability to refer them out to a more intensive program.”
Phillip Lindsey, a participant in the program, has been sober for 22 years, but returned a year and a half ago for therapy. “The program has been reaching out to the community,” he said. “We’ve been using fliers to try and bring more people to the program.”
Lindsey said he greatly appreciated Robinson’s skills as a counselor as well as her dedication and support. “She has been more than what I need,” he said. “She is incredibly supportive of me, and I consider her a friend. She cares about the community and people, and you do not find that. People who are mandated to the program are of all nationalities. Before this program started, there was nowhere to go. People are starting to spread the word that there is help back at Five Towns Community Center again.”
The Committee on Drug Abuse was originally established in 1969. In addition to court-mandated clients, referrals for those 16 and older are generated by hospitals.
“We receive our referrals through diversion court” — a legal form of intervention intended to change a young person’s behavior — “and drug-treatment court as well,” Robinson explained. “We get our primary clients through mandated sources. We also service community members who are self-referrals [as well as from] hospitals and schools.”
Five Towns Community Center Executive Director K. Brent Hill said he was optimistic that $60,000 in grant money from the federal American Rescue Plan will aid the committee’s program. “We are well trusted and known in the community, so we get referrals from community members,” Hill said. “We are going to use those funds to expand our telehealth capabilities.”
With the number of overdoses growing since the Covid-19 outbreak, the Committee on Drug Abuse has used several services in an effort to reverse the trend. “We call clients to check in, have orientation meetings, make sure the peer support and family relationships are strong,” Robinson said. “Having more peer support allows clients to reach out, and everyone has a Narcan kit, which helps them.”
While the Five Towns program receives modest assistance from the federal government, Nassau County’s overall war on drugs will see an infusion of up to $115 million, part of the more than $1 billion that New York state will receive in what is considered a landmark opioid settlement.
The money will come from drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson and Johnson & Johnson and four chain pharmacies —Walgreens, Walmart, CVS & Rite Aid — County Executive Laura Curran stated in a July 20 news release.