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LEESBURG - The mental health care workers couldn't figure it out

The Daily Commercial - 2/26/2018

LEESBURG - The mental health care workers couldn't figure it out.

The young man's family thought he was having a mental breakdown, so they brought him to the LifeStream Behavioral Center. A star athlete in high school, he excelled as a diver on the swim team. Now, he was diving onto the floor off furniture.

The staff began treating him for psychosis, but it wasn't working.

"Normally, we seen improvement within a day or two," said Rick Hankey, executive vice president of the facility.

Finally, they realized that he was suffering from the effects of opioid drugs and altered the treatment. "The side effects are often the same," Hankey said.

Mental health workers, emergency rooms, nonprofits, and others are developing and changing strategies to combat a crisis in opioid drug abuse.

"We've seen an increase in the last year, year and a half," Hankey said, and those are the lucky ones. Overdose deaths jumped 55 percent in 2017 over the previous year, from 41 to 75, according to the Medical Examiner's office in Leesburg.

LifeStream, which has 100 beds for severe mental illness, has always treated patients for alcohol abuse and opioids like cocaine and heroin. "Now, we're seeing prescription drug abuse and synthetic drugs like fentanyl," he said.

One of the most alarming statistics is the soaring number of babies who are born addicted.

In addition to detox, outpatient and residential programs, LifeStream now has a treatment program at the Anthony House in Zellwood for pregnant women.

It's a tough, six- to eight-month program.

Homeless, often with three or four children by different fathers, the women often face self-esteem issues because they have been abused or traumatized.

Another problem is that they are used to getting handouts.

"They have a lot of demands, and we say, ?Hey, we saved your life!' ''

Work ethic is one of the lessons they must learn. It's basic, at first. Women can earn tokens for doing chores. They then can go to "the mall," which is actually a small room, and buy things with the tokens they earn.

The goals are simple: Get off drugs, get your kids back, get a job.

Recently, a graduate of the program, who ended up getting a job as a dental hygienist, came back and donated a bicycle.

"You gave me one when I needed it, now, I've giving you one," Hankey said, quoting her.

Case workers help the women build or rebuild a support system. "Some, unfortunately, have burned all their bridges," Hankey said, "so we create one with counselors and others."

The state has been looking at ways to keep doctors from over prescribing, including training. A few years ago, the state cracked down on "pill mill" pain clinics, with their fraudulent distribution of opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Families still need to be on the alert. A person who takes two pills when only one is prescribed may well be on his way to addiction.

Elderly people are falling into the trap, too.

"It's not that they want to be addicted," Hankey said. "They don't question the prescriptions and a lot of times their prescriptions need to be adjusted."

Unfortunately, when Florida fixed the pill problem, they created a demand for the cheaper heroin and synthetic drugs.

LifeStream is creating "tool boxes," to treat addictions, Hankey said.

One of the most promising is a drug called Vivitrol, an injection medication that must be administered every 30 days.

"It blocks the pleasure transmitters in the brain," Hankey said.

One of the problems with treatment programs is that all patients can think about is the craving to get the next dose. Vivitrol blocks that feeling, he said.

"It's not a miracle drug. It requires people to be invested and come in every 30 days for an injection and counseling," he said, though it is showing real promise, including reducing recidivism.

LifeStream is not the only agency readjusting its strategy.

Be Free Lake, a nonprofit set up years ago under a different name to combat underage drinking, has now switched to the opioid fight, said Delrita Meisner, executive director. "This is a different time."

The organization holds meetings with the Medical Examiner's Office, law enforcement, the Health Department and others to help keep everyone abreast of the latest developments.

She is also working with a statewide task force to plan a hazardous drug disposal day in April.

The Florida National Guard is also joining in the battle with a real-time overdose map, according to Capt. Michael Coy, who operates out of Jacksonville.

The system, which was developed in the Washington, D.C., area, marks every spot, right down to the street level, he said. "Some things still need to be refined," Coy said, but it should prove to be invaluable to law enforcement and medical rescue crews.

The National Guard prepares for emergencies, including natural disasters like hurricanes. Florida, like other states, has declared the opioid crisis to be an emergency.


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