Ben Girodias 

Groundcover contributor

On December 23, 2021, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) announced that starting January 1, 2022 residents seeking substance use treatment can call the 24/7 hotline number 734-544-3050. This single access point hotline has trained clinicians who can connect you or the person you are concerned about to needed services regardless of ability to pay. Overall, this change will greatly reduce barriers to access; it will expedite getting help to those who need it. 

This significant change comes at a critical moment. The isolation induced by the social distancing measures of the pandemic has only served to further increase unhealthy coping in the form of increased drug abuse nationwide. 

For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a 29% increase in calls to their national hotline from 2019 to 2020. More locally, over the last few years Washtenaw County has seen more deaths due to drug overdoses than car accidents. For example, in 2019 there were 82 drug overdose deaths compared to the 50 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents. For reference, these 82 drug overdoses make up 7% of all deaths reported to the Washtenaw County Medical Examiner.

The majority of these drug overdoses came from opioids, particularly fentanyl, which is an extremely potent synthetic opioid. Unfortunately, these rates of drug overdoses have been increasing rather than decreasing over the last five years, despite the widespread use of the life-saving drug naloxone. (Narcan, the brand name of naloxone, is a nasal spray that blocks opioid receptors thereby preventing an overdose.)

But the toll comes from more than just overdoses. Almost everyone knows someone affected by substance use disorder (SUD). Because substance use can be such an intoxicating escape, many struggle to stop even when the marginal relief is far outweighed by the harmful consequences. 

Long term substance abuse leads to a variety of mental, physical, and social health problems: physical impairment, organ damage, comorbidity with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or PTSD, withdrawal from friends and family, loss of employment and inability to afford stable housing, among others.  According to the National Institute of Health, “about half of individuals who experience a SUD during their lives will also experience a co-occuring mental disorder and vice versa.” In other words, there is a strong connection between substance use and mental distress. 

Put succinctly, for many struggling with substance use, it is the cage not the drug that causes the problem. As described in Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, many experiments in the 1960s showed a very reproducible outcome of overdose when rats were hooked up to self-administrable substances. If a rat had access to a lever that delivered a dose of morphine, inevitably the rat would continue to press the lever until it died of an overdose. This followed the previous medical model of addiction where a user would become addicted simply through repeated exposure to a substance. You take more and more of it and eventually the physical and mental addiction develops. 

Later, in the late 1970s, Dr. Bruce Alexander and his research team reconsidered the experiment. He asked himself how he would respond to being placed in an isolated cage with nothing to do but take morphine. He figured he probably would take increasingly high doses too. Instead, he and his team developed rat park: a large enclosure with food, toys, and other rats to play and mate with. The outcomes were immensely different. Not only were the rates of morphine use lower, but also physically addicted rats would resist their physical cravings when placed in rat park because they wanted to be mentally present for the fun. This radically differs from the numbing behavior of the rats when placed in isolation.

While the physical component of substance use should not be underplayed, we should not think of the physical mechanisms in isolation. The mental cage contributes heavily to increasing problems with substance use. Trauma correlates strongly with substance use, especially among those without healthier coping strategies and without access to proper mental health care. Hence, the importance of the Community Mental Health single access point helpline. This allows for people to be treated holistically, which increases the likelihood of them getting the help that they need. 

Community Mental Health can help with both mental illness and substance use. And because sooner rather than later is certainly better, increased mental care access decreases the severity of the related issues, which ultimately benefits everyone. 

The average taxpayer agrees. As part of the approved 2017 mental health and public safety millage, in 2020 alone Community Mental Health has been able to provide over four million dollars worth of services to get people the help they need. 

So what are you waiting for? If you or someone you know needs substance use or mental health treatment call the helpline today. Go ahead. Right now. I’ll wait. 

Quitting substances can be one of the most difficult things that a person will do in their entire life. Most can’t do it alone, and there is no reason to. There are wonderful, supportive people right here in your local community, who can connect you to the services you need to get better. And that is what is always possible: it can get better. No matter how horrible it may seem, and lord knows life can at times be unbearably horrible, remember that it can get better. Please do get the help you need. Call 734-544-3050. It can get better. 

While the hotline can be called to deal with mental health crises, call 911 for immediate medical emergencies like an overdose.

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