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Clark County organizations build recovery support network in response to opioid crisis

It takes a village to fight addiction

By , Columbian staff writer
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Recovery Cafe Clark County member Chris Mackmer, left, enjoys lunch with volunteer Scott Hacker. Recovery Cafe is a community organization that specializes in helping people with addiction recovery. It is part of a collection of local organizations that have banded together to respond to Clark County's opioid crisis.
Recovery Cafe Clark County member Chris Mackmer, left, enjoys lunch with volunteer Scott Hacker. Recovery Cafe is a community organization that specializes in helping people with addiction recovery. It is part of a collection of local organizations that have banded together to respond to Clark County's opioid crisis. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

An explosion of fentanyl addiction and opioid overdoses in Southwest Washington is being met with a collaborative approach that is helping those struggling with addiction and winning praise from addiction counselors.

“Vancouver is building a model that I think that the nation should be taking a look at,” said John Amato, a peer-specialist with Columbia River Mental Health Services who regularly collaborates with multiple organizations in Clark County responding to the opioid crisis. “I think the groundwork is being laid right now, and the effort that’s being put in is going to continue to build on itself.”

Overdoses have been on the rise in Clark County. According to Clark County Public Health, fentanyl overdose deaths increased from 17 in 2019 to 37 in 2020, and preliminary data shows 47 deaths for 2021.

The number of people struggling with addiction to fentanyl — a highly addictive opioid 50 times stronger than heroin — is rising, too, according to Dr. Kevin Fischer, chief medical officer at NorthStar Clinic, Columbia River Mental Health Services’ outpatient clinic.

“This fall, we shifted to fentanyl becoming the opiate of choice in Clark County in terms of what we see for clients with severe substance use disorders,” Fischer said. “Between January and March, we saw well over 100 people seeking treatment.”

Responding to the crisis has been a challenge for organizations across the county. However, Clark County Public Health, Columbia River Mental Health Services, Recovery Café Clark County, SWACH, local churches and others have banded together to respond to the crisis collaboratively. So far, the approach has shown positive results, with more and more people seeking and getting treatment every month, according to Fischer.

“As somebody that is new to Clark County Public Health, seeing the level of collaboration and action on this issue has just been phenomenal,” said Rachel Vinson, the new program manager at Clark County Public Health’s Harm Reduction Syringe Services Program.

Building connections

One person connecting organizations in Southwest Washington that respond to the opioid crisis is David Hudson with Clark County Public Health. Hudson manages Public Health’s Healthy Communities team, which compiles data around overdoses and other topics related to public health.

Hudson has worked to build connections because more collaboration between organizations means people struggling with addiction will encounter fewer barriers to accessing recovery services, which will promote trust in the system, Hudson said.

“People struggling with addiction have to feel like they can trust the people that are trying to help them,” Hudson said. “When we build trust, people are more likely to come back, and that’s what we want.”

Constant communication between organizations and agencies is a big part of Clark County’s collaborative response.

Hudson’s team has a weekly meeting with the NorthStar Clinic team at Columbia River Mental Health Services. There’s the Clark County Opioid Task Force, which meets regularly. PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center facilitates an Opioid Treatment Network, and Hudson’s team and members of NorthStar Clinic participate in that, as well.

That level of communication leads to a more streamlined response, Hudson said.

Now, when someone struggling with addiction joins one organization, such as Recovery Café Clark County, they simultaneously enter a network of recovery, housing and employment services.

Few barriers to entry

Recovery Café Clark County specializes in helping people with recovery. The café has few barriers for entry, and only three requirements for membership: they must be sober for 24 hours; they must attend one recovery circle (a small support group) each week and they must give back to the café community in some way, such as helping with chores.

While the café connects members with other resources in Clark County, it also serves as a gathering place to build community.

How to get involved

The Recovery Café has seen an influx of members over the past few years, and there is a waitlist to join. To get started, you can visit the café between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, where you can grab a free meal and sign up for a New Member Introduction. Or you can call 360-984-6163 to learn more and get your name on the waiting list. To learn more about the Recovery Cafe, visit recoverycafecc.org.

Columbia River Mental Health Services’ NorthStar Clinic accepts walk-in appointments for treatment between 7 a.m. and noon Mondays through Fridays. You can make an appointment by calling 360-993-3000 or visiting crmhs.org/request-services.

You Can Help

Recovery Café is seeking volunteers. To learn more, visit recoverycafecc.volunteerlocal.com/volunteer. To donate to the café, visit recoverycafecc.org/support-us or call 360-984-6163.

To donate to Columbia River Mental Health Services, visit crmhs.org.

“Our main thing is connection,” said Recovery Café Operations Manager Becky Gonzales. “We want our members to feel like they are connected with the recovery community, but also people that are outside of the community, because sometimes when you’re new in recovery, you feel like you’re on an island all by yourself. We want to make sure that they’re not on an island by themselves.”

Recovery Café invites other groups to use its space at 3312 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., including Dual Recovery Anonymous and Criminals Anonymous. It connects members with a variety of services depending on their needs, including housing, employment and more.

Columbia River Mental Health Services also uses the Recovery Café space for its mobile crisis team to conduct assessments with clients rather than outside. Addiction specialists at Recovery Café regularly interface with addiction specialists at Columbia River Mental Health Services.

Now, the organization is collaborating with other organizations to bring a naloxone vending machine to the Recovery Café to make the life-saving medication more accessible.

‘Resource brokers’

Providing comprehensive support is what the Recovery Café is all about, Gonzales said.

Reduce Overdose Risk

Clark County Public Health urges people who use drugs to take steps to reduce the risk of fentanyl overdose.

Carry at least three doses of naloxone and know how to use it. Naloxone is a widely available medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. Naloxone is available at most pharmacies and does not require a prescription.

• Let friends know that you have naloxone, where you keep it and how to use it.

• Don’t use alone. Someone using alone cannot call for help during an overdose.

• If you are going to use while you’re alone, call a friend or Never Use Alone at 800-484-3731 so they can send help if needed.

• When using with others, go one person at a time. Watch and wait before the next person uses.

• Don’t mix drugs. Mixing different types of drugs — such as opioids, alcohol, methamphetamine or cocaine — increases your risk for overdose.

• Call 911 if someone overdoses. The state’s Good Samaritan Overdose Law protects you and the person you are helping from drug-possession charges.

 

Overdose deaths in Clark County, according to Clark County Public Health

2017: Fentanyl, 10. Methamphetamine, 33. All opioids, 39. All drugs, 80.

2018: Fentanyl, 11. Methamphetamine, 22. All opioids, 38. All drugs, 61.

2019: Fentanyl, 17. Methamphetamine, 39. All opioids, 36. All drugs, 66.

2020: Fentanyl, 37. Methamphetamine, 42. All opioids, 62. All drugs, 111.

2021 (preliminary data): Fentanyl, 47. Methamphetamine, 42. All opioids, 61. All drugs, 103.

“We encourage every single member here to find multiple support systems,” Gonzales said. “And if you need help finding that, we’ll help you find it, because we’re resource brokers. We’ll help you all the way to the next door that you got to go to, so you won’t be by yourself.”

That support network is unique to Clark County, according to Gonzales. It’s something that other organizations in Washington, including other Recovery Cafés, have taken note of, she said. Some have even reached out to Gonzales. She remembers one addiction counselor from Everett who called and said, “I don’t know what Clark County does, but the collaboration down there is like no other.”

“We’ve really created this beautiful network with our community,” said Recovery Café Operations Director Tracey Jennings.

Moving forward

As Hudson continues to connect organizations to help Southwest Washington meet the crisis head-on, his team is compiling comprehensive data to help those organizations identify trends in drug use, hospitalizations and overdose deaths.

The team is currently developing an online overdose dashboard that will be available for all.

“That data will be really helpful for all of us to plan ahead as we see these trends and determine how to address the issue,” he said.

Additionally, the team is working to establish an official Response Network, a collaborative of providers that will be notified any time there is a spike in overdoses.

“All these partners will be ready to respond,” Hudson said. “And then we’ll all be working and communicating together on a regular basis when we see these spikes in overdoses, and we’ll be able to respond effectively.”

One of the biggest challenges moving forward is garnering support from the public and decision-makers, Hudson said.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about who’s impacted by this, why they’re in this situation and how they need to be helped,” he said. “Part of our role is to grow support around this work. It’s so important not just to the individuals that are using drugs, but it’s an issue that affects the greater community, because we know that when individuals like this are in more stable situations, it creates more stability in the community overall.”

‘Support is huge’

For some 20 years, Charles Stuart struggled with addiction and homelessness.

“I quit several times for a couple of years at a time, but I never stopped,” he said. “I just thought to myself that that would never happen. I had no support.”

But that changed about two years ago when Stuart got connected with Recovery Café Clark County.

The café provided structure and community for Stuart, and it helped him access other resources in Clark County. Ultimately, it gave him access to Southwest Washington’s collaborative recovery community.

“When I first got here, it was like anything else, I was very reserved,” Stuart said one afternoon after enjoying a meal at the café. “But I just kept coming back for my recovery circle once a week, and then I started stopping in more than that. I started getting to know people and started falling in love with the people here. It’s very family-like.”

Now, Stuart is clean and sober. He’s still a regular at the café, as well as with local churches that support recovery in Clark County. He lives at the Safe Stay Community at Living Hope Church, where he is also an on-site manager. He uses his lived experience to help others with their own recovery.

“Support is huge when it comes to recovery,” he said. “If you’re in recovery, you’ve got to find something like the Recovery Café.”

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