The North Country has been impacted by the national opioid epidemic. Whether it has wreaked havoc, or simply touched us negatively, there has been an impact. As a community we are working diligently to insure resources are available for all who are looking to make choices more in keeping with health and wellbeing. The disease of addiction, specifically but not exclusively opioid addiction, alters the addict’s cerebral function. Many opioids target the amygdala where emotion and motivation are connected and the drive for drugs gets amped up. The brain of an active addict is not the same as it was prior to addiction, prior to being infected with the disease. And while the debate about how we got here is ongoing and may never be resolved, there are others who are more concerned with what do we do now, what CAN we do now?
NO JUDGMENT HERE
Diana Aguglia has been on the front lines of this fight for almost 20 years as the Regional Director for The Alliance for Positive Health (formerly known as the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York). The name change, which occurred at the start of 2015, wasn’t so much about changing services and the support it offers but rather acknowledging the group’s expansion. The Alliance for Positive Health (AFPH) provides a continuum of direct services to people living with HIV/AIDS and their family members. It also offers a variety of other services to individuals and families suffering with chronic illnesses, addiction and intravenous drug use. The stigma that continues to challenge addiction and recovery is especially prevalent among IV drug users. “These are really disenfranchised people,” Aguglia shared, “They have usually burned bridges with everyone they know but they can come here and not be judged.”
The Alliance’s office, located on Cornelia Street in Plattsburgh, has multiple entrances that allow for privacy. The Plattsburgh regional office, which serves Clinton, Franklin, Essex, Hamilton, Washington, and Warren counties, offers more than a dozen programs to help participants make healthier choices. In addition, the agency offers a compassionate understanding of how to make those steps manageable for each individual. “Making the decision to go to treatment is huge,” Aguglia observed. “But if an individual isn’t ready to embrace treatment, then they aren’t ready. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have value as a person. Maybe the healthiest thing they can do for themselves is to get a fresh kit so they aren’t sharing or reusing needles. If that is what they can do, well, that’s great and we’d like to help them do just that!” Empowering program participants through education and meetings, and supporting them “where they are at” are key for AFPH. Trust allows for lifesaving information to be shared about “bad batches”, best practices and options for treatment when/if they are ready. The goal is to support and value each person. According to Aguglia the program currently has over 450 active participants ranging in age from 18-81 from every demographic.
AMONG THE RESOURCES
When an individual arrives at The Alliance for Positive Health the staff does intake and provides information about safe injection techniques, safer sex practices, referrals for HIV/STI/ hepatitis testing, and free Narcan training and kits for opioid overdose prevention. The initial visit is for information only. No one is obligated to take any action. The idea is to provide information so when they are ready to take their next step in a healthful direction, they know what is available to them.
AFPH also has a Syringe Exchange Program. Project Exchange, established in 2015, offers new sterile syringes, other injection supplies and provides safe disposal of used sharps. Since the program began, they have collected upwards of 678,000 syringes. That is an average of a quarter million syringes a year here in the North Country. “More than 99 percent of the syringes we distribute come back,” Aguglia emphasized. “They bring them back here to the regional office or to sharps disposal sites around the city in places like Wilcox Dock, the receptacles on Green Street and at City Beach.
The opiate crisis isn’t someone else’s problem. It is a national problem and the North Country hasn’t been spared. Just look and you will see the signs: workplace absenteeism, a foster care system overwhelmed with children whose parents are incarcerated or in residential addiction treatment programs, emergency rooms struggling to cope with overdoses, our courts dealing with the criminal consequences of choices made by people using drugs.
The Alliance for Positive Health is here for some of the most desperate among us. The care and compassion each of members of the team brings to their work is fueled with sincerity and empathy. Some of the staff are open about working on their own personal recovery. Aguglia explained, “If shaming people worked to make them healthier, we wouldn’t be having a conversation. These people have been shamed enough. They need help and we’re here to provide it.”