Unintentional drug overdoses in Connecticut doubled between 2015 and 2021, according to Department of Public Health figures, most recently counting 1,447 victims last year.

With deaths from overdoses still on the rise, local governments are taking a variety of approaches to address the threat. Some involve community engagement with parents to keep youth safe, while others depend on police connecting people with services rather than – or in addition to – criminal charges.

Parents encouraged to talk to and advocate for their children

Dr. Deepa Camenga, associate program director for pediatric programs at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine, recently spoke to concerned parents at a seminar held by Fairfield CARES Community Coalition, a youth substance use prevention organization, in the wake of back-to-back overdose incidents involving young teens.

In January, a Hartford 13-year-old fatally overdosed on fentanyl, a highly-addictive narcotic, and in New Haven, five seventh-graders became sick after ingesting edibles containing THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects.

“This is something we are seeing in our schools and we are seeing in our communities,” Camenga said. “I think it is really important that we, as parents, know how to bring up these conversations with our kids, know how to advocate for our children in their schools so they can be safe, and know how to connect with services or ask the right questions to people that help connect with services if we are concerned.”

Fairfield Chief of Police Robert Kalamaras, Detective Michael Zerella, Matthew Hlavna (clinical supervisor for American Medical Response), Dr. Caleb Lusk (primary family care physician) and Dr. Deepa Camenga, Yale School of Medicine. Credit: Contributed photo

Camenga said parents should not be afraid to ask their local school boards to have a formal response plan in place to deal with an overdose.

“I was surprised because I work with New Haven schools. They do have some requirement for CPR training, but some schools do not have a systematic response to any type of overdose,” Camenga said. She said schools are open to getting the training, but it’s not required.  “We have to advocate for it.”

During her presentation, Camenga explained many substances youths are exposed to – from marijuana to opioids – the different forms through which they can be ingested, and where youths typically get them.

Edibles, cannabis-infused foods and drinks, are particularly dangerous, Camenga explained.

“It takes longer to get to the brain, about 20 minutes to 2 hours. The effects last for hours and most of the time the kids don’t really know what concentration of THC is in the edible they are taking,” Camenga said. “The thing we see very often is that they over-ingest. You won’t feel the effect for a while, so some kids will take a lot of them and then several hours later, get extremely ill. It is very easy to overconsume.”

One trend Camenga said she keeps hearing about is parents giving their kids edibles in social situations.

“It’s not infrequent that I’m hearing that they’re like, ‘Oh, for a celebration, have my edible,’ which is usually a gummy,” Camenga said.

It is important to have age-appropriate conversations with children, as they do respond to adults explaining exactly why these substances aren’t good for them.

“Kids are actually quite interested in learning about science and having things explained,” Camenga, who works with both high school and middle school children, said. “I work with many young kids. They really want to understand their bodies and how they are being affected.”

Fairfield CARES is one of several organizations throughout the state to recently receive a $5,000 mini-grant from the State Opioid Response Grant program. Catherine Hazlett, program director and coalition coordinator for Fairfield CARES, said the money will be used to collect opioid data from local state sources, to educate the community regarding safe storage of medications and to participate in “Drug Take Back Day” in April, when families are encouraged to safely dispose of unused medication.

Hazlett said that grant would also support showing an informative documentary to teens, promoting suicide prevention, as well as the websites drugfreect.org and youthinkyouknowct.org. The group will also conduct outreach to parents through schools and social media and partner with agencies to conduct Narcan training to treat narcotic overdose in an emergency situation.

Hazlett said she hopes more parents get involved with the coalition.

Fairfield Detective Michael Zerella, who also spoke at the seminar, said Fairfield saw 30 overdoses in 2021, seven of which were fatal, and already this year, six overdoses, one of which was fatal. He said the victims were mostly in the 20- to 40-year-old age range.

“We are seeing so many different overdoses – heroin, cocaine,” Zerella said. “As long as we get some closure for the family and get that type of drug off the streets, and keep Fairfield safe and other towns safe, we do the best we can.”

An Alternative to Arrest

Some local police departments are providing other options than arresting those who seek help for an opioid addiction, including giving emergency personnel the ability to refer people to a recovery coach.

The Manchester Hope Initiative Recovery Coaching Program – a collaboration between the town of Manchester, the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR), and Manchester police and fire – has put 34 people in touch with services since the program started in 2021. Lt. Ryan Shea, public information officer at Manchester police, said 11 people remain actively engaged with a recovery coach.

When talking about the program’s success, Shea discussed an individual who was referred to recovery services despite having to face charges stemming from an assault on a police officer.

“That person is still actively engaged in recovery services,” Shea said. “We have an impact on the individual and the community knowing that the officers are trying to do everything they can to help, rather than just apply the law. We are a gateway to recovery services.”

Retired Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy and social worker Sarah Howroyd founded the Manchester Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative in 2016. Additional partners were added over the years, including CCAR, St. Francis Hospital and Manchester Fire Rescue EMS.

While the program now focuses on those struggling with opioids, Shea said the department might open it up to people struggling with other substance use issues.

Brian McManus, a recovery coach program manager at CCAR, said Manchester police have long recognized that arresting people for substance abuse doesn’t always work.

“A lot of times, people just aren’t aware of what’s out there in terms of recovery because people don’t talk about it,” McManus said. “We want to put a face on recovery so people know that there are resources out there and how to get in touch with those resources.”

Vernon and Enfield police have adopted similar initiatives.

Vernon Police Chief John Kelley said his officers have brought nine people who agreed to get services to the hospital since 2019.  Enfield police chief Alaric Fox estimated that since his department implemented the policy in 2018, three people per year reach out to the police for help.

“We will then make arrangements to get them to St. Francis Hospital for care. We would take any narcotics or paraphernalia in their possession for destruction,” Fox wrote in an email.  “The intention, in effect, has been to try to eliminate whatever fear or anxiety that might have been associated with reaching out to the police, especially after hours, when more traditional services might be unavailable, for help.”

Ask for help

McManus said the best chance for people needing help is to reach out and ask.

“People can’t help you unless they know you need or want help,” McManus said, adding these kinds of initiatives help make accessing assistance a little easier for people.

“I think the police get a bad rap because of the nature of the situations they are put in, but from what I’ve seen they really don’t want to arrest someone who has an issue, who is struggling with a substantive abuse issue,” McManus said.

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