The stigma of drug use and addiction often has led to silence about the struggles of substance abuse. That’s something the Gunnison County Consortium wants to change.
In fact, the newly formed group is kicking off a video campaign to speak candidly about the subject for all the community to see.
The Gunnison County Consortium was formed as a subgroup of Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project (GCSAPP). It’s made up of representatives from six key organizations — GCSAPP, Gunnison County Health and Human Services, the Health Coalition of the Gunnison Valley, the Center for Mental Health, Western Colorado University and Gunnison Valley Hospital.
Additionally, the consortium is now host to approximately 25 other community members who share a similar concern for the cause to treat substance abuse disorder — particularly when it comes to opioids.
“The goal ultimately is to be able to more comprehensively address prevention, treatment and recovery of substance use disorders across the lifespan,” said county Juvenile Services Director Kari Commerford.
In June of last year, Gunnison County was awarded $200,000 from the Health Resources Service Administration Rural Communities Opioid Response Planning grant. That grant was among a total of $24 million awarded to 120 rural communities this past year — $1 million of which went to Colorado communities.
This past fall, the consortium conducted research that included interviews with 32 different community members to determine the status of substance abuse disorders relating to prescription as well as illicit opioids. The goal is to use the information for a strategic plan for opioid-use prevention, treatment and recovery.
“One of the biggest challenges in our community has been community norms that favor substance abuse,” said county Health Educator Kyle Tibbett. “It’s hard to find an event that doesn't have alcohol.”
While the key focus with the grant is to improve treatment options for opioid abuse, both Commerford and Tibbett said more often than not “polysubstance” abuse — for example, alcohol and opioids — is at play in the lives of those struggling with a substance.
Yet, the available means to deal with substance abuse is out of reach for many rural communities, said Commerford.
“We lack treatment,” said Commerford. “We lack outpatient treatment, and we lack substance use disorder treatment.”
That means those suffering from addiction have to travel to find treatment.
“Our communities that deal with (addiction) typically have go to Grand Junction,” said Commerford. “That limits their ability to work, transportation becomes a huge issue — it just snowballs.”
On top of travel, trying to register for available treatment is another challenge faced by those searching for a means of recovery.
“Whether it’s in Montrose or Grand Junction, often they have extensive waitlists,” added Tibbett. “Options are just really lacking for those community members.”
When community members are able to seek help here at home — at places such as the Center for Mental Health — there is still a stigma that comes with the service. It’s difficult to remain anonymous in a small town, explained Commerford.
“Everybody knows your car — so if your car is parked outside, there’s a lack of anonymity,” she said.
For Commerford, a large piece of the puzzle is treating both mental and physical health as equally important.
“We wouldn’t be so concerned if someone saw our car at the hospital and we had a broken arm,” added Commerford.
Part of the process of de-stigmatizing the struggles of substance abuse includes the consortium’s video campaign effort. Filming is planned to take place Jan. 21-31.
Community members are invited to share their stories dealing with how substance use disorders have impacted them or their loved ones. To do so, contact Tibbett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com .)
OPIOID USE IN GUNNISON COUNTY
> Opioids are the leading cause of drug-related death in Gunnison County.
> From January 2015 to September 2019, there have been 14 drug-related overdoses.
> Eighty percent of deaths were identified as accidental polydrug overdoses, meaning more than one substance was used at once.
> In 2019, a total of three heroin-related overdose deaths occurred.
> The victims of all opioid-related deaths have been non-Hispanic white males between the ages of 25 and 69.