The Topic: Massachusetts’ Plan to Curb Opioid Abuse
Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services and BCSSW Visiting Professor Marylou Sudders addressed what her office is doing to combat the opioid epidemic in the Commonwealth in a recent talk in McGuinn Hall, emphasizing the data-driven approach that is already serving to curb addiction and overdoses across the state.
“One of the things we thought we needed to do to change the conversation and the treatment system for individuals living with addiction,” explained Sudders, “[and to do that, we believed that we] had to put out the data.”
The numbers, in fact, are striking, so striking, that Sudders and her team were able to use hard facts to persuade previously skeptical officials in government, medicine, and the social services that the opioid crisis in Massachusetts was an epidemic. Over the last ten years, she reported, more than 6,600 Massachusetts residents have died because of opioids. Nationwide, every 15 minutes a person dies from an opioid overdose, and every 25 minutes, a baby is born with opioid withdrawal. According to the Boston Globe, opioid-related overdoses alone killed more than four and a half times as many people in Massachusetts as motor vehicle accidents during the first half of 2015.
Once persuaded that it was imperative that the state should move forward with a concerted effort to curb opioid abuse, Governor Charlie Baker convened key stakeholders to develop interventions to help change the system. An 18-member expert panel examined recommendations from more than 150 organizations, submitting 65 potential actionable steps to the governor in June 2015.
A few of the steps taken since then by the Commonwealth include:
- An increase in spending for substance abuse prevention by 50 percent.
- The implementation of a 7-day limit on opioid prescriptions to lessen first time exposure to the drugs.
- The establishment of three public awareness campaigns to reduce stigma and raise awareness.
- The funding of 54 community collaboratives hard at work to prevent substance abuse.
The data is beginning to move in the right direction, thanks largely to Sudders’ leadership on these and other critical programs vis-à-vis opioid abuse. More people are trained in substance abuse and prevention than ever before, while health care workers are better trained and equipped to save those individuals whose lives may be at risk. Yet, Sudders recognizes the challenges moving forward remain many.
“For many years, we didn’t consider addiction to be an illness, and there is still significant stigma attached to the disease,” said Sudders. “Also, there is the ‘I came from a good family, it couldn’t happen to us’ syndrome. The conversation is changing, but there is still much work to be done to truly alter how we understand and treat addictions.”
The Power of a Social Work Degree
In the introduction to her talk, Sudders repeated a refrain she uses often with social work students – that your degree prepares you to be anything you can set your mind to be. Sudders is living proof – she oversees the largest executive agency in state government, including a nearly $23 billion state budget with 22,000 dedicated public servants. As Secretary, she is the highest-ranking social worker in public service nationwide. And she also has put her money where her mouth is, so to speak, hiring a host of social workers to important positions within her administration. Three of the twelve agency heads she employs are social workers.
“My secret goal, though, is full social worker employment,” she said, with a smile.