U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy visited Griswold on Jan. 9 to discuss the impact of a new $1 billion federal funding bill for mental health and addiction on eastern Connecticut.
A packed house of local town officials, law enforcement, community leaders, and medical professionals gathered to discuss the region's response to the spike in opioid addiction.
Despite 730 opioid related deaths across the state last year – a figure nearly three times higher than the number of deaths from automobile accidents – "we're nowhere near the peak of this epidemic," said Murphy.
Given the scope of the problem, the funding provided by the bipartisan mental health bill represents "a drop in the bucket. But it's the first recognition from the federal government that this is an emergency," he said.
Murphy developed the Mental Health Reform Act in collaboration with U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, consulting with mental health professionals, policy experts, consumers, and family members. The bill gained 28 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate, split equally between Democrats and Republicans.
Among other features, the bill's provisions aim to more fully integrate mental with physical healthcare systems: establish early intervention programs for children showing signs of mental health issues; strengthen suicide prevention programs; and tighten accountability and leadership for both mental health and substance abuse programs.
A total of $1 billion was earmarked by the bill, specifically to fight opioid addiction by improving prescription drug monitoring programs, expanding drug addiction treatment, and implementing prevention programs.
Murphy said that the federal funds will be divided among the states based on population, with Connecticut to receive approximately 10 percent, or $10 million.
The state's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services would have to apply for the funds and determine how best to use them, said Miranda Nagle, coordinator of Griswold PRIDE, a community anti-drug coalition.
The state is already implementing a pilot program of training for law enforcement on mental health and addiction issues, Nagle said. The program, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the federal Department of Justice, will provide a mental health clinician based with Troop E of Montville as a resource for officers, she said.
The funding will also be used to develop resource guides for both officers and the general public on dealing with at-risk individuals, she said. It will also offer training for troopers, starting with resident troopers, in intervention techniques and ways to de-escalate potentially volatile situations involving overdose or other mental health issues, she said.
Angelo Callis, director of Norwich Youth and Family Services, pointed out that a recent survey of students in Norwich high schools indicated that heroin use has actually outstripped both alcohol and marijuana use among local teens.
"I'm afraid that the way money gets funneled down, it doesn't find its way to community-embedded services," he said.
Urban areas of the state show a disproportionate rate of arrests for drug offenses, said Murphy, "but when you look at the addresses" of those arrested, they include people from the state's small towns.
Norwich Mayor Deb Hinchey agreed.
"This isn't just poor communities. This is all our communities," she said.
State Sen. and Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten said that heroin has been a problem in the region, at greater or lesser levels, for decades. The closure of Norwich State Hospital in the 1990s "changed the geography but didn't deal with the issue" of mental illness in the region, she said.
"What we're doing is perpetrating a system that's not effective and not a moral way to take care of people. Follow-through is expensive, but it needs to be done," Osten said.
Griswold was the first town in the state to use Narcan to save overdose victims, said State Rep. and Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyck.
"That's a sad fact," he said.
Public perception of the stigma associated with drug use is changing, but the drugs themselves, particularly fentanyl-laced heroin, are "so different from what we're used to," he said.
Skulczyck said he was gratified to see Murphy "at the highest level [of government] pushing for that funding and for awareness" of the impact of drug addiction on eastern Connecticut communities.