by Bill McCarthy, Executive Director

You may know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health issues and substance use often coincide. Throughout our programs, we encounter individuals affected by one, the other, or both, and we have learned that they cannot sustain a better life without addressing those issues.

Not only that: At a board meeting not long ago, we asked members to raise their hand if they, a loved one, friend, neighbor or colleague had been affected by a substance use disorder. Everyone raised their hand.

When the complex and devastating impact of substance use disorder hits home, it is a wake up call. For us, it is one we can act on.

Why we’re expanding our approach

During our strategic planning process in the latter half of 2017, we committed to expanding our behavioral health services to include a substance use disorder treatment plan that’s integrated into many of our programs.

We made this commitment because we saw the devastating impact of substance use disorders. Clients may come to us because of another need, but if a substance use disorder is not addressed, they won’t live a healthy, fulfilling life.

It’s close to home for everyone

Addiction happens everywhere, and it does not discriminate. Take Baltimore County for example – home to nearly half our employees, a third of our volunteers, and nearly a third of our donors. It has the second-highest opioid overdose rate in the state. But there aren’t enough resources to care for those with this addiction. Hospitals and health providers can help identify the need, but there is not enough access to treatment.

The Baltimore County Executive’s Office has received recommendations to appoint an opioid strategy coordinator to evaluate access to and quality of treatment; assess levels of neighborhood engagement; and develop a coordinated, cross-agency strategy to address this crisis. The recommendations also include offering expanded residential and community-based care, training for first responders to de-escalate crises, and education to reduce stigma so more people with substance use disorders will seek care.

(Full disclosure: I sat on County Executive John Olszewski’s transition team as a co-chair for Health and Human Services. Our expertise as an agency played a role in making these and other recommendations.)

How we help

Our work to help others transcends politics. We are called to offer our knowledge and care when and where we can. You may know that we operate three behavioral health clinics in the county, plus our services at Villa Maria School, St. Vincent’s Villa, and Hosanna House for formerly homeless women. We also serve in 27 group homes, 34 schools, and several senior communities in Baltimore County. We work to identify the effects of substance use disorders in all of them. Soon, we will be offering medications for addiction treatment, known as MAT services, in some locations.

Family Services Assistant Medical Director Dr. Enrique Oviedo has written a very helpful guide on how to speak with and about individuals with substance use disorders. I encourage you to read it. Our language is part of the way we treat individuals with dignity and encounter them with compassion, and the way we educate ourselves and others.

This is one of the most critical needs of our time. Thank you for standing with us and with those in need of help.