Citing Opioid Crisis In Southern Brooklyn, Local Rep Pushes For More Resources

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From left to right: Ann Marie Perrotto (founder of Christopher’s Reason, a substance abuse treatment center opening on Staten Island); NYS Assemblywoman Pamela Harris; Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle; and Donna Mae DePola, President & CEO of the Resource, Training & Counseling Center, during a visit to the Center today. (Photo: office of Assemblywoman Harris)

It’s a largely hidden — and widespread — crisis that demands more immediate government attention.

That’s how state Assemblywoman Pamela Harris (D) describes alcohol and opioid addiction across southern Brooklyn. Harris believes the issue is so urgent she and the Assembly’s Democratic Majority Leader Joseph Morelle visited an organization in Sunset Park today that provides outpatient services to addicts — the Resource, Training & Counseling Center.

The Center also has a location in Bay Ridge, on 77th Street.

“I wanted our majority leader to see this,” Assemblywoman Harris told us. She said that her office receives an average of ten calls every day from constituents who are searching for substance abuse help for their children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren.

Harris, who represents sections of Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Dycker Heights, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, will be defending her seat in the Assembly in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“This is it for us,” she said at the Center today, noting that Brooklyn residents from Sunset Park to Brighton Beach have limited options when seeking substance abuse treatment and mental health services.

“I don’t want it [the impact of alcoholism and drug abuse on southern Brooklyn] to get blindsided,” Harris said. “When we get back into session, we have to tackle this issue.”

Both new treatment centers and more funding for existing locations are needed, the Assemblywoman argued. Donna Mae DePola, President & CEO of the non-profit center we visited today, stated that sufficient funding is an ongoing challenge.

Assembly majority leader Morelle concurred that the State should do more. Morelle, who represents the Rochester area, shared that members of his own family are struggling with addiction. He said that providing more support for treatment and recovery is something on which the State Assembly, Senate and Governor can all agree.

“The growing number of deaths and addiction [a record high 825 heroin-related deaths were recorded across the state in 2014] will drive us to put more resources into this,” Morelle said.

The scale of the problem is daunting. Statewide, over 1.9 million New Yorkers (1.77 million adults and 156,000 youth ages 12 to 17) have a substance abuse problem, the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) reports on its website.

According to 2010 estimates by OASAS, “approximately twelve percent of State residents age 12 and older experience a substance use disorder (addiction or abuse) every year.”

The Resource, Training & Counseling Center (RTCC) here in Brooklyn provides direct services to addicts, and also trains those that work with them. According to program director Sheila Mashack, the Center serves almost 400 clients annually — the largest number are alcoholics, followed closely by those addicted to opioids and marijuana, along with individuals struggling with addictions to drugs like cocaine, PCP and crack.

Mashack said that opioids include street drugs like heroin, but also prescribed substances such as oxycodone and fentanyl, both used for pain management.

The RTCC provides both individual and group counseling. And it offers “medical therapy” for addiction using pharmaceutical drugs under the supervision of a doctor. Clients also receive help managing medications they are taking for mental health issues. The Center has a part-time doctor, nurse and psychiatrist on staff.

The RTCC is also preparing to open a detox unit on-site, and already provides medical observation to clients who are experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

A segment of the Center’s clients are parolees, recently out of prison, Mashack noted. The Center offers job training and even space for socializing so clients can relax and support each other.

Mashack said that one of the biggest gaps she sees in treatment across the city is insufficient mental health services.

The RTCC has responded to this gap by training recovered addicts to provide peer to peer counseling to new clients. In her 22 years in the field, Mashack said, the response of clients to other addicts has been striking. When we visited today, a group of 35, many of them in recovery, were in training to become credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselors.

The peer counselors escort new clients to meetings, talk to them as they begin treatment, and provide invaluable companionship, Mashack said. “They’ve been there.”

Some of the RTCC’s employees are personally familiar with addiction. Ann Marie Perrotto spoke to us about her 22-year-old son’s death after a two year struggle with opioids. Perrotto, who lives on Staten Island and is working with the Center to raise funds for a new treatment center there, said that her son was simply unable to find adequate help for his addiction.

“Everybody turned away; everybody judged you,” she observed. “Recovery is a lifetime.”

For more information about substance abuse treatment in Brooklyn, see the State’s database of treatment providers.

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