Substance abuse a problem that plagues the U.P.

CALUMET – When 33-year-old Eric W. was 17 years old, his home life was so bad he started abusing opiates, and as a result of those years of abuse, he is a resident of Phoenix House substance abuse treatment center in Calumet.

Eric (It is the policy of Phoenix House not to use the last name of clients in newspaper articles.), who has been with Phoenix House since May, said he didn’t abuse alcohol in the past, and doesn’t now. However, his abuse of prescription opiates eventually led to his abuse of morphine, both of which he was able to buy on the streets.

“Addiction just took over my life,” he said. “I was suicidal.”

Eric said he was abusing drugs because he wanted to “block out” the things happening in his life he felt were too painful to face.

During his abuse of opiates, Eric said he was involved in various criminal activities, including theft.

While at Phoenix House, Eric said he’s come to understand how his drug abuse affected not only himself, but also those around him.

“Everything in the past, what you’ve done to your family, that comes up to play on your mind,” he said.

Eric said now he’s in recovery, he’s been able to talk about his addiction and he thinks it’s helped those relationships.

“For the most part, my family’s understanding,” he said. “Our relationship is still on my side, which is a godsend.”

However, Eric said the relationships with his family aren’t the best they could be.

“The trust issue is not quite there, and probably won’t be there for awhile,” he said.

Eric said he will be a resident at Phoenix House until September, and he thinks the time he’s spent there has been very helpful because the facility is a safe environment.

“I’m getting prepared how to handle situations,” he said. “I’m transitioning to responsibilities through the program. I’m in a pretty good mind state, right now.”

Mark Maggio, Phoenix House executive director, said Eric is typical of the people coming to the facility in his abuse of prescription drugs, particularly opiates. Although alcohol is the number one drug of choice for most of the facility’s clients, prescription drugs, particularly opiates, are rapidly increasing in frequency.

“We’ve seen an increase in (intravenous) use,” he said.

Those IV drugs include heroin and pain medications, Maggio said.

Muggio said he thinks in the Keweenaw there is currently a transition from alcohol abuse to opiate abuse taking place.

Treatment for those who enter Phoenix House is not focused solely on the substance they are abusing, Maggio said.

“It’s not just the addiction,” he said. “It’s the whole life we’re treating.”

Maggio said Phoenix House has residential detoxification and substance abuse programs, as well as out-patient services. Residents and outpatients must be at least 18 years old. The average age is 33 years old.

According to a federal agency, 10 percent of the population of the United States has a substance abuse problem, Maggio said.

“I do believe it is higher in the (Upper Peninsula) than the national average,” he said.

Maggio said family tradition, environmental factors, geographic isolation and poverty are all factors contributing to substance abuse in the U.P.

Providing services can be difficult for Phoenix House, Maggio said, because of continual cuts to state funding.

“We haven’t seen any new money since 1995, but we’ve seen continuous decreases in funding,” he said. “I believe it is a part of why we are seeing the explosion (in substance abuse). There’s a lot of youngsters dying because of the prescription (drug) use.”

Maggio said for him, the strongest influence for whether a young person becomes a substance abuser has to do with home environment.

“As children we’re learning from our parents how to cope with life,” he said. “If we’re seeing constant drink, drug, drink drug, we’re learning that’s normal, that’s how you deal with things.”

Addressing that home environment issue is part of what the Copper Country Mental Health Institute does with its programs for young people.

Taryn Mack, CCMH Institute director, said the organization has various programs for school-age children.

“We want to make it age appropriate,” she said.

Mack said one of the skills taught by the Institute is resistance to pressure to use drugs or alcohol.

“There is role playing involved,” she said.

Mack said the Institute uses some of the hundreds of program models from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, which is necessary for its funding from the Western Upper Peninsula Substance Abuse Coordinating Agency.

“Those models have been shown to be effective,” she said. “The funding requires you use programs that research shows are effective.”

Mack said among teens in the Copper Country, alcohol is the drug of choice for abuse, but there’s also been a decline in use.

“We’ve seen alcohol use by teens has changed dramatically,” she said.

In a 2004 study, Mack said the past 30-day use in Houghton County was 43.7 percent, and in Baraga County was 65.5 percent. A study in 2012 with the same parameters showed the past 30-day use among 11th grade students for both Baraga and Houghton counties was 19.9 percent.

“That’s a substantial decrease,” she said.

However, Mack said those teens who do drink, are binge drinking.

“When kids are choosing to drink, they’re drinking more,” she said.

To help the youth they work with, Mack said staff at the Institute help them change the environments they live in so pressures to abuse drugs are reduced. That effort includes working with parents.

A concept the Institute works to promote is addiction is disease and not a personal flaw.

“People (with addiction) need help and support,” she said.

Eric said he has been helped dramatically by his time at Phoenix House.

“I get hope,” he said. “I learn how to cope.”