Opioid addiction remains a prevalent issue in West Michigan, and law enforcement and health officials want the public to know that treatment options are available for those in need.

Medication-assisted treatment programs are offered through West Michigan Community Mental Health (CMH) and its partners. The CMH team is hoping to inform and educate the public about those options.

Use of heroin and opioid-based painkillers — in addition to other drugs like methamphetamine — is increasing at the local level, and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole says it’s negatively impacting people’s mental health, leading to an increase in drug-related arrests and incarcerations.

The sheriff’s office works regularly with CMH on mental health-related cases. Cole said substance use contributes to and exacerbates mental health issues.

“From a jail standpoint, in the three decades I’ve worked in law enforcement, the mental health issues that dovetail into substance abuse is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said.

According to data from CMH about reported primary drug among people in West Michigan, heroin is the second most common drug after alcohol, while synthetic opioids like oxycodone are the third most common.

The rates at which opioids have been identified as a primary drug are also increasing. Heroin was at 12.7 percent in 2016, 19 percent in 2017, 21.3 percent in 2018, 22.7 percent in 2019 and 21.6 percent in 2020. Those totals are based on state-accepted behavioral health and treatment figures, according to CMH

There is not yet enough data to form a reliable picture of rates for 2021, as the figures are for the fiscal year running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

There has also been a significant increase in methamphetamine as a primary drug. “Methamphetamine/speed” has risen steadily from 2.1 percent in 2016 to 15.9 percent in 2020.

It’s taking its toll on law enforcement officers, according to Cole, and straining the resources of deputies in his office.

“Our staff isn’t trained to deal with mentally ill people, they’re trained to deal with criminals,” Cole said. “There’s been such an increase in the mental health component that ties into substance abuse, and it’s the hard substances. (Heroin and meth) have devastating effects on the human brain.”

For people addicted to methamphetamine, there is currently no medication approved to help with treatment. For those struggling with opioid addiction, however, there are options, and some are available at the local level.

Through partnerships with Salvation Army Turning Point and Northwest Michigan Health Services, CMH offers medication-assisted treatment for individuals struggling with opioid addiction and dependance.

According to Josh Snyder, chief clinical officer for West Michigan CMH, the government has approved three medications for the treatment of opiate addiction — methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol.

Methadone, an opiate used for the treatment of chronic pain, has also been used for decades to help ween people down from heroin. But it’s not available for addiction treatment purposes in West Michigan CMH’s service area of Mason, Lake and Oceana counties. The closest clinic is in Muskegon.

There are local programs for the other two treatment drugs — Suboxone and Vivitrol.

Suboxone is a medication that contains the opiate buprenorphine in combination with naloxone, which blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. Like methadone, it’s used to ween people down from stronger opiates.

CMH has partnered with Salvation Army Turning Point to offer Suboxone treatment at locations in Ludington and Baldwin. Turning Point provides the medication, while CMH offers additional outpatient services, according to Snyder.

Vivitrol — or naltrexone — treatments are offered through CMH’s partnership with Northwest Michigan Health Services. Treatment involves monthly injections of the drug, which reduces cravings and also blocking the euphoric effects opiates on the brain, should someone in treatment use opioids while receiving injections.

When these drugs are used for treatment purposes, in combination with other outpatient services such as therapy, it can increase success rates for longevity of sobriety, Snyder says.

Mandy Franklin, a recovery coach at CMH, achieved sobriety through an abstinence-based method that involved no medication. She acknowledged that Suboxone uses an opiate to treat opiate addiction, and that can be counterintuitive to some. However, she stressed that “not everyone’s journey is the same.”

Franklin said drugs like Suboxone are not typically implemented as permanent solutions, and that CMH works with clients to set goals about how long they see themselves using the medication and how they plan to eventually stop.

“From there, there are medical steps you take with a (medication-assisted treatment) doctor to ween yourself and get yourself off of it properly, so that you are abstinence-based,” Franklin said. “It could be two, three years, it could be six months. Everyone is different. They may need to have that (Suboxone, Vivitrol or methadone) just to have that safety net.”

Franklin said it’s important to understand that some people “cannot even picture life sober,” and she believes these treatments are worth it if they can shift that mindset.

Franklin said there is a stigma surrounding the use of medication-assisted treatment, but that losing that stigma would be beneficial for both those struggling with addiction and for the communities they call home.

“If they choose to take Suboxone or Vivitrol or… even methadone, medically… with a concrete program that’s going to support (them) and have them customize their own recovery journey, I say go for it,” Franklin said. “If we could remove that stigma, and just know that it’s somebody’s recovery journey, so leave them alone and let them do it. At least they’re getting sober.”

To access services or to ask questions about medication-assisted treatment options at West Michigan CMH, call (800) 992-2061 or visit www.wmcmhs.org.

Connexion Point also offers medication-assisted treatment options, and can be reached at (231) 690-7921.

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