Film screening and panel discussion show the struggles presented by opioid addiction

By Shelby Ashline

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

Gathered together in the Campus Center auditorium, more than 100 students and community members witnessed the indisputable struggles those with opioid addictions in rural Vermont face through a screening of the 2013 documentary, “The Hungry Heart.”

The 93-minute documentary began at 7 p.m. and was followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A featuring the director of the film, Bess O’Brien, the Director of Community Health and Government Relations at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Jeff Harness and Dr. Maria Gallo from University Health Services. The discussion focused on what steps need to be taken to improve the success rate of recovering addicts.

“We just need to let everybody do what they need to do to get clean,” O’Brien said. “Whatever you need should be available to you.”

However, O’Brien went on to explain that often, addicts can’t afford their treatment for insurance reasons or there simply aren’t enough openings with qualified care providers or at rehabilitation facilities.

Although O’Brien follows the work of Dr. Fred Holmes, a pediatrician working out of St. Albans, Vermont who treats 80 patients for addiction in the film, she said, “Sometimes you’ll go into places where there’s not a doctor for 20 miles.”

In these areas, there aren’t enough openings to go around. According to Harness, the problem is evident in Northampton as well.

“We’re under tremendous pressure to move people out,” Harness said. “There are times when we discharge people knowing the plan for their recovery isn’t as stable as we’d like, but there just aren’t enough beds.”

Harness advocated for more funding for prevention programs, a movement he said was robust in the 1980s, but died out in the early 2000s.

O’Brien agreed, and added that doctors need more funding, as well as more training in addiction treatment methods. She has found that addiction treatment is a minimal part of the curriculum for medical students, which produces doctors who are unqualified to treat addiction.

Through the film, O’Brien follows several of Holmes’ patients through recovery and sometimes relapse. Holmes prescribes his patients Suboxone, a drug used specifically to curb opioid addiction.

Gallo commented that Suboxone, although not a cure-all by any means, can make all the difference for struggling addicts. Only one percent of opioid addicts become clean without a replacement drug like Suboxone, Gallo said – the other 99 percent fail.

Gallo also stressed the value of a fairly new drug, Narcan, a nasal spray which can reverse opioid overdose.

“Everyone should be trained to know how to use Narcan and be able to recognize when someone is overdosing,” Gallo said. “I’m happy to train anyone.”

O’Brien explained that she originally wanted to make “The Hungry Heart” to demonstrate just how crucial it is for addicts to have a support system available to them. For the addicts portrayed in the film, their biggest supporter was often Holmes.

“The reason I made this movie is that Fred (Holmes) is a metaphor for what addicts need in their life,” O’Brien said.

And what that special something is, according to O’Brien, is compassion and a community of people standing by to help addicts turn their lives around.

Although the panel discussion focused mainly on problems that need to be addressed concerning the treatment of opioid addicts, the film itself has already played a significant role in raising awareness.

“The Hungry Heart” won the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s 2015 media award and personally touched Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, so much that he chose to focus his 2014 State of the State address on drug addiction.

Speaking briefly before the panel discussion, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan explained the film’s relevance to the Massachusetts community as well. He cited statistics, saying that there has been a 300 percent rise in opioid-related deaths in the past four years in his jurisdiction.

Sullivan extended his gratitude to O’Brien for shining the spotlight on this growing issue that is prevalent in all rural areas like those in Vermont and Massachusetts.

“I’d like to thank Bess O’Brien because this film is about every rural community in America,” Sullivan said. “These are our communities.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected]