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As opening looms, Gray clinic officials seek to diminish addiction stigma

Zach Vance • Updated Aug 2, 2017 at 8:36 PM

In pursuit of rehabilitating the region’s growing opioid addiction problem, Mountain States Health Alliance and East Tennessee State University officials are closer than ever to treating its first patients at Overmountain Recovery Center in Gray. 

But what if those needing help are discouraged from receiving treatment? 

Many addicts are disinclined to seek treatment solely because of the social stigma or negative perception surrounding medication-assisted treatment, health officials said Wednesday during a media tour of the clinic’s premises. 

When the clinic was first announced by Mountain States and ETSU, Gray residents reacted negatively, concerned about having known drug addicts driving to their community for treatment. 

The community reaction was so strong, Mountain States and ETSU officials are concerned possible picketers could dissuade or scare someone from receiving help.

Several protesters attended an October City Commission meeting where city leaders approved a rezoning request needed to operate the clinic. 

But, it will undoubtedly take time to erase some of the taboo surrounding medication-assisted treatment.  

“With respect to reducing stigma, our hope is that we will demonstrate over time that there can be really successful outcomes when (this treatment) is done well and in partnership with a lot of different entities,” Dr. Robert Pack, director of ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse and Misuse, said. 

Sharing success stories will be another crucial component to changing methadone’s reputation. 

“The stories of recovery will begin to impact stigma in the region. We want to share stories of recovery, and we want people that have those stories to step forward and share them,” Pack said. 

“We believe that there are many paths to recovery. Whatever works for different individuals is going to be what we seek to help them with. Our goal is to have a comprehensive recovery oriented system of care. That’s what we’re trying to establish here and that’s our goal.” 

Despite its controversy, Lindy White, senior operations director of Overmountain Recovery, said medication is just a small aspect of the clinic’s operations. 

As part of its “continuum of care,” the clinic will require patients routinely participate in acute therapy, provided by full-time Frontier Health professionals. An entire wing of the clinic, with more than half a dozen rooms, is dedicated to the therapy sessions. 

The clinic will only admit patients who meet very specific criteria, White said, but those not meeting the criteria will be referred to the appropriate institution or resource.

White said the clinic will serve as an “access point” for those needing help, while also providing regular medical exams and some social services. 

“Two things we need to focus on is education and prevention in our communities so that we can remove that veil of stigma (and) every patient feels as if the barriers are removed from treatment and recovery,” White said.

While most people know a family member or friend who’s battled addiction, clinic officials agreed more public education is needed on the science of addiction and the role of methadone, especially to combat its negative perceptions.

Many addiction specialists compare long-term or lifetime methadone or buprenorphine treatment to diabetes or high cholesterol medications. 

“We’re confident through those means, that over time and with the successes we have here with this program and many others, that we can really start to reduce the stigma and offer an access point,” White said. 

For those interested in receiving treatment at the clinic, White said the Overmountain Recovery Center website and hotline will be established within seven to 10 days. 

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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