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Stemming the Tide of the Opioid Crisis in NorthHampton

NORTHAMPTON — Tucked upstairs in a building just off Northampton’s Main Street, Liz Whynott sits in a tidy office lit by a cold November morning. A soft buzzer rings when the front door opens.

Each person who enters is warmly welcomed to the Tapestry Health needle exchange center, an orderly space with bins of medical supplies, syringes and red biohazard waste cans where counseling and clean needles are offered with no moral judgments.

Just down nearby Center Street, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper shakes the hand of a man who recently lost his son to an overdose. She waves goodbye and then walks to her office, where she lets out a long sigh.

“Is it working?” she says quietly when asked about the opioid prevention efforts by her department. “It really depends how you define ‘working.’ There’s some good news out of all the efforts being put in, but we still have this massive epidemic.”

From the police headquarters it is a short walk across Main and Pleasant streets to the Northwestern district attorney’s office, where Cherry Sullivan and Lynn Ferro study a spread of charts and reports.

Sullivan is director of Hampshire HOPE, a regional opioid prevention coalition. Ferro, director for Opioid Research and Recovery Support Services in the DA’s office, coordinates efforts by officials and lawmakers looking for ways to fight the epidemic.

Whynott and Kasper, Sullivan and Ferro are soldiers fighting to blunt the region’s opioid epidemic, which has made the wave of death and addiction all too commonplace.

In Northampton, a team of dedicated women are taking the lead on finding solutions for the opioid problem.

Whynott at Tapestry Health works to help those struggling with addiction to develop solutions, while trying to keep them as safe as possible.

Chief Kasper and Sullivan of Hampshire HOPE look for ways to reduce the dangerous stigma of addiction through programs such as Northampton’s Drug Addiction Response Team and implementing health curriculums to educate students around Hampshire County.

Ferro coordinates the efforts of the DA’s office, lawmakers and constituents to create legislation and programs like MassPAT, the prescription drug monitoring database that provides the detailed information needed to deal with overprescribing clinicians and doctor-shopping patients.

Ferro and Sullivan of Hampshire HOPE say they’ve also seen a shift in the community as a whole to focusing on educating and preventing people from misusing or abusing prescription drugs to begin with, before it ever reaches addiction.

For young people, Ferro and Sullivan said there is a new emphasis on teaching emotional resilience and coping to students so they never have to reach for a drug to deal with emotional pain in the first place.

A national program called LifeSkills Training implemented in a number of Hampshire County schools focuses on teaching kids to build self esteem, deal with difficult relationships and manage their emotions in a healthy way.

“If you don’t have resilience and you don’t have coping ability, that’s it, what are you gonna do?” Ferro said. “You need comfort, right now. And that’s going to be alcohol or drugs or smoking… whatever addiction you choose.”

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