Community forum to be held at JCC on local impact of addiction | Education

WATERTOWN — In an effort to address addiction and its impacts, a forum will be held next week to raise awareness and allow those affected by addiction to share their stories.

The idea for the “In the Know” community and family forum came to Amanda L. Serrano, program associate at ACR Health, last year as she was thinking about how the community has periodic impact panels about driving while intoxicated, but not ones drawing attention to the drug use crisis in the county.

“It’s like Jefferson County’s dirty little secret,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, it just is really not talked about.”

Looking to fix that, Ms. Serrano worked with other local agencies like Anchor Recovery Center to provide an opportunity for people to share their stories. The forum will have a moderator and discussion of topics such as how addiction affects families, what the community can do, what individuals can do and what resources are available.

The event will take place from 6 to 8 pm March 18 at Jefferson Community College’s Sturtz Theater, 1220 Coffeen St. Doors will open at 5:30 pm

Ms. Serrano said there will be six to eight people on the panel, including a member of local law enforcement, a business owner who overcame addiction, family members who have lost loved ones to addiction and a mother whose son is in active addiction.

“It’s just going to be an opportunity to present education and awareness, to share their stories with other individuals so that we can let them know there are resources in the community,” she said. “We do have a woman that’s a mental health specialist so we have somebody there to be able to provide support as well.”

The goal is to hold the forum quarterly on different topics, and Ms. Serrano hopes it brings a deeper understanding and awareness of addiction so conversations about substance use may be more compassion-based.

As someone who was in active addiction for 15 years and has lost people close to her to the disease, Ms. Serrano said things are only getting worse. Clean for almost 10 years and now working in the harm reduction field, she said the drug world is a “whole other game” now.

“It’s a lot more dangerous because the drugs are man-made and they can just be shipped here; you can have whatever you want sent to your doorstep, literally hand-delivered to you,” she said. “I just hope for more compassion. You’d be surprised how many people I offer Narcan to and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t hang out with anybody that does that.’ And it’s like, how many times have you been in the store and you’ve seen an individual that was under the influence? And you probably just moved your purse to your other shoulder and looked away.”

By hearing people’s stories, especially people of various economic status, she hopes forum participants will see they’re not alone. She noted that a lot of people are afraid to ask for help because they’re embarrassed and ashamed.

Another member of the planning committee, Robert E. Bowen, behavioral health and substance use coordinator at the North Country Family Health Center, said the forum was prompted by last year’s record increase in overdose deaths across the country. He said mental health and substance use go hand in hand, and a lot of people self-medicate because they grew up in an environment where that’s what they witness.

“I work a program, a Suboxone program, essentially, and the medicine is a great medicine, but the groundwork is really made in one-on-one therapy and trying to find out where our trauma may be coming from,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be significant trauma, but we learn what we see and, unfortunately, there’s still such a stigma against mental health counseling or therapy that people will reach other means for coping.”

A lot of the patients Mr. Bowen’s organization sees already know this information — they live this information, he said — so what forum organizers want to do is reach people who think something like addiction couldn’t happen to them or their families.

He said preventative elements of the forum may help people identify a family member or friend needing assistance. The forum will be filmed and shared on social media.

“I just hope that people come,” Ms. Serrano said. “I think there’s great minds on this planning and there’s been a lot of personal dedication. This is something that each person is doing on their own free time, and I think that’s great because we’re giving back and not just through our job or employment, but we’re doing it personally because we want to. Nobody had to do this, it was just a thought, and for people to believe in it, it’s just awesome. I hope it’s really beneficial to our community.”

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