A lead nurse at Turning Point Center in Jeffersonville holds up a sublingual Suboxone strip. Staff photo by Josh Hicks
A lead nurse at Turning Point Center in Jeffersonville holds up a sublingual Suboxone strip. Staff photo by Josh Hicks
CLARK COUNTY — Paige Ross knows all too well just how powerful addiction can be, and not just because she's worked in behavioral health and substance abuse treatment for 14 years.

Ross has seen all sides of addiction up close. Her father has struggled with alcoholism since her childhood. In 2006, her mother died as a direct result of a drug addiction. Her brother will soon celebrate 12 years in recovery.

Ross now works as a nurse at New Vision for Expectant Mothers, which offers specialized care for pregnant women with substance use disorders.

Helping save lives is why Ross and so many health professionals and local leaders gathered for a slate of speakers at Kye's I on Thursday.

Hosted by the Southern Indiana Comprehensive Treatment Center, the event focused on medication assisted treatment. Known as MAT, the treatment uses medications that relieve cravings and block the effects of substances like alcohol and opioids, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The comprehensive treatment center, located in Charlestown, serves 1,900 patients and offers counseling combined with MAT, along with other support services. Clinic Director Lindsey Vissing said the center organized Thursday's event to educate the community about the value of MAT.

"I started at Southern Indiana Treatment Center seven years ago, and [medication-assisted treatment] was kind of in the dark," Vissing said. "People were unsure about it or they thought of us as the 'clinic.'

"And we've really seen people come out. And education provides a big understanding for people."

Dr. Lawrence Schoch, who works at the center, explained why MAT works. Beyond the withdrawal and detox stages, the medications — including suboxone, methadone and buprenorphine — can help someone stay on track and return to a productive, functional lifestyle.

Schoch said it can take years to reverse the effects opioid abuse has on the brain, making MAT an essential part of recovery.

" ... Opioid use disorder is a medical illness. It's a chronic illness. It's not a matter of will power, it's not self induced," he said. "There are structural and functional alterations that take place in the addicted brain."

According to SAMHSA, MAT has been shown to increase retention in treatment and decrease drug use and the criminal activity associated with it. Most importantly, it can save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. In Clark and Floyd Counties, number of overdoses have been on the rise over the past few years.

A guest speaker who went only by Michael attested to MAT's benefits. He started binge drinking in high school and eventually turned to prescription opioids.

"I remember the first time I was ever introduced to a prescription pain killers and the feeling that I got," Michael said. "The change in my perception that I got was something so drastic that I had the conscious thought that I'm never going to stop doing this as long as I live."

"And unfortunately because of that I pursued continuing taking opiates and did that for several years."

Michael sought out treatment several times, but it didn't took long for him to relapse. Finally, someone recommended he go to the comprehensive treatment center in Charlestown where he could receive MAT.

“And it changed my life," he said.

Michael now runs his own business and feels he's contributing to society. He said he's just one of many success stories, and he hopes people will take a closer look at the benefits of medication-assisted treatment.

But what the center calls myths often influence public perception. MAT is criticized for replacing one drug with another, especially when used over long periods of time.

Bill Zenor is a counselor at the comprehensive treatment center. He said while it's true that methadone and other medications are drugs, the potential side effects are nowhere close to the damaging effects of opioid abuse. Furthermore, he said, the medication in MAT is just one part of the treatment. Patients are required to undergo counseling.

The center and others like it are also regulated by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other regulatory agencies to ensure best practices and to prevent people form abusing the medication.

Zenor also stressed that MAT isn't just about harm reduction and detox, it's about recovery. And that takes time.

"All the research shows that MAT, when it's only short term... that that exposes the risk of someone going back and using illicit drugs again," Zenor said. "In fact, the success rates are much higher when it's a long-term treatment."

New Vision for Expectant Mothers has treated 245 women since June 2015. Ross, a nurse there, said numbers show that MAT leads to higher success rates for pregnant women, and decreases the cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Those are the kind of results Ross and other MAT providers hope the community can get behind.

"I encourage you all to be open minded when interacting with anyone suffering from a substance use disorder," she said. "These are real people with real lives that have had something happen to lead them to addiction."

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