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Family and Children’s Association

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At a time when budgets will be extremely tight amid the gradual economic recovery caused by the virus-induced economic shutdown, investing in organizations that help people deal with mental health problems and substance abuse now could save considerably more money later.

That’s the argument Family and Children’s Association Chief Executive Officer Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds makes, particularly as Suffolk and Nassau County Executives Steve Bellone (D) and Laura Curran (D) urge more federal aid for Long Islanders.

“When you have untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, the county will pay for that one way or the other,” Reynolds said in an interview. “The question is: do you want to pay for it upfront or on the back end,” with the loss of life from drug overdoses.

Jeffrey Reynolds, the CEO of the Family and Children’s Association. Photo from FCA website

Throughout Long Island, Reynolds, who had previously been the Executive Director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said the emphasis on basic needs among families has increased, particularly as the number of unemployed in the area has approached 200,000.

Many of the unemployed are “involved in low wage jobs to begin with” and are living “at the margins,” so there is a need for food, rental assistance, and housing, he said. The basic needs have increased significantly.

The transition to telehealth has been effective for those with mild or moderate challenges and, in some ways, is even easier than walking into a church basement or going to a center. The first step, which is often the hardest in entering any kind of treatment program, involves fewer logistical challenges and allows people to remain anonymous.

At the same time, however, some of these virtual efforts are problematic for those who are dealing with a significant level of impairment.

People who have a more acute mental health condition are “less likely to engage via telehealth” and the same holds true for people with severe substance abuse, Reynolds said. “A virtual session is not the same as seeing them in person and groups are not the same as they were before.”

FCA has seen an increased demand for services for people who were anxious or depressed. Fear or a lack of control brought on by the virus is bringing some of these symptoms to the surface.

“Across the board, we are seeing an increased demand for services,” Reynolds said. “There is now space in which we’re not seeing that request.”

The virus has made health care disparities more visible. The numbers of illnesses and fatalities in Brentwood, for example, are 12 times higher than in Garden City. That relates to preexisting conditions like obesity and diabetes, but also to the crowded living conditions in Brentwood.

The combination of the business closings such as gyms, restaurants, movie theaters, and other enterprises creates anxiety and impacts family structure and family functioning, Reynolds said.

Long Island has had to cope with previous recessions and downturns from disasters like Superstorm Sandy, but this is “even deeper. I imagine we’re going to see the ripple effects for a decade to come.”

Reynolds is concerned about people returning to their normal lives at some point, without addressing underlying problems in the communities or with other families.

Still, Reynolds feels fortunate to work for an organization that has existed and helped communities and neighborhoods for 135 years. That means the group was around during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

“What keeps me going is that we’re always had to do more with less,” Reynolds said. “We found hope in people’s lives where it seems like there isn’t.”

Indeed, the group not only survived the Spanish Flu, but also made it through both World Wars, the Great Depression, 9/11, and numerous natural disasters.

Additionally, on the positive side, the FCA can provide services in a much timelier way. People who call with a drug or alcohol problem can get some help within ten minutes. The current environment provides the equivalent of “treatment on demand,” Reynolds said.

The FCA head urged people to get involved, which could mean volunteering time at a school, offering help to a local charity or checking on an elderly neighbor.

He urged people to dedicate some of the time they spend on social media to helping others.

Reynolds has spoken with numerous people who have alcohol dependency. When they finally get treatment, some of them have said, “If it was that bad, why didn’t anybody say something to me?”

He urged friends and family to care for each other, asking about weight loss or prolonged sleep. He suggested having conversations that go beneath the surface.

Children and families benefit from structure, especially in a challenging environment. Reynolds suggested a regular evening meal time and a consistent time and place for homework.

Ultimately, as the head of a 135-year old organization, Reynolds said people need to believe that “you can get through this,” he said. “Even if it feels like the world is ending, it’s not.”

Sharon Richmond poses with her son Vincent D'Antoni in Battery Park on Mother’s Day 2016. “One day society will look back at this time period and think what a terrible atrocity we allowed to happen to our most vulnerable children,“ Richmond said. Photo by Sharon Richmond

I am educator, an advocate and most importantly a parent who lost her only child to the disease of addiction. Unfortunately, I know I am not alone. The truth is: I stand with more than 72,000 other parents who grieve the loss of their child to an overdose. 

When I speak publicly about addiction issues and look out at people, I see a small piece of me. When I look at your child, I see the beautiful potential of what could have been my child. If only mental health and the disease of addiction had the same basic human right to health care as other illnesses. I hope that by sharing my son’s story, I can create a future where all people are treated equally, no matter their ability or disability. 

My son Vincent was sensitive, kind, funny and insightful. He was popular, played almost every sport, and his teachers always said he brought conversations to the next level and stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. I will always stand tall and be proud of the person my son was. 

The one thing that most people never knew was that, no matter how hard he tried, Vincent still battled with serious mental health issues: ADHD, trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), anxiety and low self-esteem, which eventually led to a deep depression. Even though Vincent had a family that absolutely adored him and everyone he met thought he was handsome, smart and funny, Vincent … never saw himself that way. Children need to be taught how to communicate and be given a variety of strategies to cope in today’s world. We have to work together. It needs to be at the family, school and community level. 

Vincent started smoking marijuana in high school. Toward the end of my son’s life, he shared that “pot” had been his gateway drug to stronger drugs. After high school, he was hanging around with a different crowd. During college, his “A” grades started to falter. Then, he lost his job. Something wasn’t right. I searched his room and found what I feared most: Oxycodone had become Vincent’s drug of choice. We had heated discussions that oxycodone was extremely dangerous and addictive. He would show me research that denied it. As we all know, powerful companies can find ways around the law and can state just about anything they want and get away with it. 

The oxycodone amplified my son’s anxiety and depression. He began to isolate himself. He could hardly get himself to go to work or even out of the house. Vincent tried to self-detox and get drug free on his own, failing several times. 

Finally, Vincent agreed his addiction was out of his control. I had so much hope he was going to get the treatment he desperately needed. Over the course of just one year, prior to my son passing away, he would get denied by the insurance company over four times! 

The insurance company stated he didn’t fit “medical necessity.” First, he had supportive parents. Second, he was motivated to get better. By the third denial, I filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office. They were able to get my son 14 days. 14 days … is such a short time to physically and emotionally overcome addiction, and certainly not enough time for Vincent. My son came out and soon relapsed. This time to heroin. 

After battling with the insurance company for months, they finally approved my son. Regrettably, unbeknownst to us, insurance companies are allowed to back-deny services within 30 days of approval. After detox and 14 days, my son was back-denied, stating he had no other mental health illnesses, was highly motivated to get better, and had a supportive family. He was crying that he needed more time. He was extremely anxious and severely depressed. They placed Vincent on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication, even though my son was denied treatment due to not having any mental health illnesses. 

My son was trying to get better. He went to out-patient almost every day, met weekly with his counselor, and attended meetings at night. 

In the next few weeks, Vincent stayed drug free … he was beginning to be himself again. However, without getting the services he desperately needed and deserved, my son relapsed and bought drugs unknowingly laced with the deadly drug fentanyl. My son Vincent had no chance. I lost my shiny star, my beautiful son, Vincent on Sept. 13, 2017. Last month would have been his 28th birthday. 

Vincent’s battle is one like too many others. In his honor, I advocate for change. He had so many barriers making it so difficult to get the help he needed: whether it be getting denied Suboxone for detox, incorrect information to determine appropriate services, or getting the Vivitrol shot to help prevent relapse. No one should ever have to fight so hard for the basic human right to health care. 

Insurance companies need to be held accountable. They need to cross reference information for accuracy prior to denying inpatient treatment. They need to comply with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Federal law states that anyone with a mental health illness or the disease of addiction should get the same basic human rights to healthcare as those who have regular medical conditions. 

I couldn’t imagine if my son or anyone’s child had a regular health disease such as diabetes, a heart condition or cancer that they would get denied the medical care they needed, if they had a supportive family and were motivated to get better.

Over 200 loved ones die from an overdose every single day. We don’t have the luxury of time. In order to create any meaningful change, we need you to be a part of making a difference in our community. Your voice needs to be heard. It is so powerful and very important. If you truly want to see change … Reach out to your local and state representatives, ask them what their action plan is, and hold them accountable. Let them know how important it is for you and your children to have a future where everyone has the same right to get the care they need to be healthy. 

It is my hope that by sharing my son’s story, I can raise awareness, encourage the importance of communication, education and most importantly equality for basic human right to healthcare. 

Sharon Richmond lives in Northport and is part of the Town of Huntington’s Opioid Task Force. She is also a member of the Northport-East Northport Drug and Alcohol Task Force. She works closely with F.I.S.T (Families In Support of Treatment), LICADD (Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), FCA (Family and Children’s Association),  the North Shore CASA (Coalition Against Substance Abuse) and Nassau County Heroin Prevention Task Force. She is a teacher at North Shore Schools in Nassau County.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during a press conference July 25 about creating a permanent panel to address the ever-growing opioid crisis. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Following another year of rising opioid use and overdoses, Suffolk County officials announced legislation that would create a new permanent advisory panel to try to address the issue.

“We have lost people from this [problem],” Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said during a July 25 press conference. “Children have died, adults have died and we’re here to do more.”

The panel would have 24 members, including representatives from health and science groups, members of law enforcement, hospital employees and individuals from the Legislature’s Committees on Health, Education and Human Services and would focus on prevention, education, law enforcement and drug rehabilitation across the county, Anker said. The panel is planned to be broken up into sub-committees, which would tackle a specific area.

“This is an issue that needs all hands on deck,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said. “We are not going to arrest ourselves out of this — this is a public health issue [of historic proportion], but law enforcement plays a critical role.”

Over 300 people from Suffolk County died from opioid-related overdosess in 2016, according to county medical examiner records. Sini said that in 2016, the police administered Narcan, a nasal spray used as emergency treatment to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, in Suffolk County over 700 times.

A 2010 bill saw the creation of a similar advisory panel with 13 members, many of whom are members of the new proposed panel. The original, impermanent panel ended five years ago, but had made 48 recommendations to the legislature focused mainly on prevention education, treatment and recovery. Two recommendations from this committee that were put in effect were the Ugly Truth videos shown in public schools, and countywide public Narcan training.

Though proud of the work they did on that panel, members agreed the situation has worsened since it was disbanded.

“[Seven] years ago we stood here and announced the initial panel — I had the privilege of co-chairing that group — a lot of the things we recommended actually happened, some things didn’t,” said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association. “Regardless, the problem hasn’t gotten any better, and in fact, it’s gotten progressively worse. Some of the gaps in prevention, access to treatment, recovery and law enforcement haven’t yet been filled. For us to have an ongoing opportunity to have a dialogue together — to brainstorm some new solution to disrupt the patterns here — is very, very valuable.”

On the education side, Islip School District Superintendent of Schools Susan Schnebel said at the press conference that education has to begin at a very young age.

“It’s important that schools take hold of what happens in the beginning,” she said. “That includes educating students at a very early age, educating the parents to know what’s there, what are the repercussions, what is the law. That needs to happen with a 5 or 6-year-old.”

Executive director of the North Shore Youth Council Janene Gentile, and member of the proposed panel, feels that the advisory panel is an important step. She said she hopes that it will be able to do more in helping prevent people, especially young people, from using opioids in the first place, and hopefully help those exiting rehab.

“Implementing a family component when they are in rehab is really crucial, while they are in rehab and when get out,” Gentile said. “There are other agencies like mine — 28 in Suffolk County. If we can reach out to them they can help with re-entry [into society]. They go on the outside and the triggers that started them on opioids are still there, and they need to have places where there are no drugs. We’ve gone through a lot, but we’ve got to do more — and prevention works.”