It Started As an Effort to Alleviate Pain…And Now It’s Causing Pain for Millions
If you’ve been in a doctor’s office in the last twenty years, you’ve probably seen it. It’s a chart of cartoon faces ranging from big smiles to frowns and grimaces. It first debuted in the mid-1990s, and it’s still used today to help patients describe the degree of pain they are experiencing to their doctors. The debut of the Wong-Baker Face Scale occurred at roughly the same time makers of pain-relieving medications known as “opioids” were assuring doctors that their products were safe and rewarding doctors who prescribed their products with trips to pain management seminars and other incentives.
For the next twenty years, pain management would be all the rage. Doctors who successfully managed their patients’ pain were given awards and celebrated. By 2011, doctors were writing nearly 238 million prescriptions for opioids each year. And the companies that manufactured and sold drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet got rich.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the medical community realized something was amiss. Heroin deaths were on the rise, and nearly 80% of heroin users reported first misusing prescription opioids. No longer able to get opioids from their doctor, people who became addicted turned to the street – and to heroin – to get high. With the introduction of synthetic opioids like Fentanyl to the marketplace three years ago, we now find ourselves consumed by a full-blown epidemic. What started as an effort by doctors to manage pain for their patients has turned into people dying by the thousands in Philadelphia.
At the very heart of the opioid epidemic sits Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc. (APM). With a Behavioral Health Center right on 5th and Allegheny, APM currently sits right on the front lines.
And their leadership wouldn’t have it any other way. “APM has been working to address substance abuse issues in Philadelphia for nearly 50 years,” said CEO Nilda Ruiz. “In fact, APM was the first agency in Philadelphia to provide treatment for drug and alcohol rehabilitation designed specifically for the Latino population.”
Working alongside Ms. Ruiz is Dr. Cheryl Pope, a 9-year veteran who has seen first-hand how the opioid epidemic has changed the very fabric of the community. “The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis,” says Dr. Pope, “and it affects the whole family. When one family member is abusing drugs, it has a domino effect. We see children with anxiety, because their home environment isn’t stable. We see grandparents raising children grappling with additional stressors and depression.”
To bolster Dr. Pope’s team, APM recently recruited Dr. Hector Colon-Rivera. Dr. Colon-Rivera joined the APM team in February as the new Medical Director of the agency’s Behavioral Health Programs, with a goal of expanding the agency’s capacity to deal with the opioid crisis. As the co-founder and Co-Chair of CrearConSalud Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports and conducts non-partisan research, educational activities, and advocacy to increase public awareness of mental health and substance use disorders in Puerto Rico and the Latino/ community in the United States, he is a veteran of the war against opioid addiction.
Dr. Pope, Dr. Colon-Rivera, and their team of psychiatrists, health care providers, therapists, case workers, and peer support specialists agree that in order to combat the opioid crisis in Philadelphia treatment has to be holistic, comprehensive, and culturally-sensitive.
Nearly 3500 people seek APM’s help each year. Many are addicts in need of drug and/or alcohol treatment services. Others are family members in need of family therapy or support services as a result of a loved one’s addiction. APM’s professional staff recognizes the inter-connectedness of the families in Philadelphia and how the opioid crisis seems to seep through every crack weakening the foundation of the community.
“People come to us with a complexity of needs beyond just the presenting problem,” according to Dr. Pope. “No matter the point of entry, treatment can’t be successful if a strong foundation isn’t there.”
Making Real Change Happen — Community Wide
And building a strong foundation is a key element of APM’s core mission. As the Behavioral Health team works to address specific issues caused by the opioid epidemic, the organization’s other departments are working collaboratively to address many of the wider issues affecting the larger community. Family Services works to ensure children grow up in the safe, stable and nurturing environment they need to thrive. Housing Services works to provide financial counseling and affordable housing. Community Services works to combat income inequality and gentrification that continues to change the very nature of the communities in which they work.
“The issues faced by our community are large, complicated, and deeply intertwined,” says APM President and CEO Nilda Ruiz. “Only by taking a multi-pronged approach can we get to the root of our challenges and make real change happen.”
With 50 years of experience combatting drug addiction and related issues, APM shows no signs of letting up. The opioid crisis may have taken hold in Philadelphia, but the Behavioral Health team at APM is poised and ready to help. If you or someone you love needs help, all you need to do is ask. Call APM at 267-296-7200. Visit APM at www.apmphila.org. Follow APM on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Reach out. APM’s Behavioral Health Services Team is for everyone – including you.