If you asked any group of Long Islanders “How many of you know someone who’s been impacted by heroin or opioids?,” every hand would go up. Last year, more than 500 families in Nassau and Suffolk buried loved ones — victims to what’s been called the worst public health crisis in U.S. history. Thousands more have seen the stereotypes about addiction and their suburban lives shattered by prescription pills, heroin and other drugs.
Despite efforts to combat addiction, the problem is getting worse — perhaps because 15 years and thousands of preventable deaths later, we still exhibit some of the attitudes that gave opioids a head start.
Controversy is percolating in Blue Point, where residents are outraged that Seafield Center — which has operated a rehab in Westhampton Beach for 32 years — has purchased the St. Ursula Center to turn the financially strapped convent and retreat center into a 76-bed inpatient drug-and-alcohol treatment center for women.
Playing into the stigma about addiction, a civic group is circulating an online petition warning that kids may have to walk past the new facility on their way to school. Billboard trucks parked around town urge residents to “Say no to Seafield” to “Protect your family’s future.” The implication, of course, is that women seeking help for addiction are potentially dangerous to children, that Blue Point is the nation’s only community to have miraculously escaped the opioid epidemic and that bringing “those” people into the South Shore hamlet will destroy families.
Ironically, Suffolk County leads the state in fatal drug overdoses, and Brookhaven has lost more residents to the opioid scourge than any other town in Suffolk.
To be fair, the project’s opponents admit there’s a need for more drug-rehab beds; they just want them somewhere else. There’s a name for that, but beyond NIMBYism, our collective response to addiction — especially in suburbia where white, middle-class young people are the new face of heroin — has always been undermined by denial, fear and politics.
Some of the same elected officials who stood with treatment professionals and bereaved families at news conferences on International Overdose Awareness Day in August and at other drug-prevention events are against the proposed facility, while others have remained uncharacteristically silent.
One town council member told a TV reporter that turning St. Ursula, which holds recovery meetings and retreats, into a drug-and-alcohol rehab would “affect the quality of life” in Blue Point. He’s right. With better access to treatment, we’d likely see fewer petty crimes, hospital admissions and overdose fatalities.
Let’s be clear: Along with comprehensive prevention education for those at risk, the only way out of this crisis is to help the thousands of Long Islanders who are sick and suffering from substance use get the health care they need.
People are still dying because timely access to high quality treatment, especially for women, is fraught with barriers related to insurance coverage and waiting lists at local facilities can span weeks. We need new treatment centers not only in Blue Point, but in Southampton, Smithtown, West Islip, Garden City and every other community across Long Island. We also need more compassion, understanding and a willingness to make combating the crisis in our community a shared responsibility.
Jeffrey L. Reynolds is president and CEO of Family and Children’s Association and a member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Heroin and Opioids Task Force.