Cap Times Idea Fest: Panel takes on Wisconsin’s far-reaching opioid addiction crisis

From left, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette; Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland; Cap Times reporter Jessie Opoien, Wisconsin Voices for Recovery Director Caroline Miller and Rise Together Project Manager Nadine Machkovech at the Cap Times Idea Fest Saturday.


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Prevention and treatment are key solutions to addressing Wisconsin’s far reaching opioid addiction epidemic, panelists participating in a discussion at the inaugural Cap Times Idea Fest Saturday agreed.

In 2015, more people died from opioid overdoses than car crashes, according to the Department of Health Services. Opioids include heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine and fentanyl, and opioid-related deaths are driven by prescription opioids, according to the Department of Health Services.

The rate of opioid abuse disorder has more than doubled since 2005, according to data from 2005 and 2014.

Caroline Miller is the director of Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, a statewide recovery network currently supported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Care and Treatment Services. She is also in long-term recovery, has personally experienced the devastation related to opioid abuse and warns that the issue is personal.

“If you think this opioid crisis has not affected you, it will,” Miller said.

Deaths from prescription drugs are highest among 50- to 54-year olds in Wisconsin, while deaths involving heroin in Wisconsin are highest among 19- to 25-year-olds, according to the Department of Health Services.

Nadine Machkovech, who is also in long-term recovery, aims to amplify young people to break the silence of substance use and other issues through her role as project manager for Rise Together. The 4-year-old program encourages youth to become leaders in their community, according to the organization’s website.

“(Youth) are struggling and maybe they’re not struggling, but their parents are struggling and they’re living in broken households and don’t know how to talk about these issues,” Machkovech.

To Machkovech, prevention is the only way to effectively solve Wisconsin’s opioid epidemic and to “prevent our next generation going down the same path that I did.”

Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said the entire community should be involved as a resource to prevent addiction and to understand why so many people are brought to a point of “desperation” that they are abusing substances. She also said post-treatment housing is needed.

“We will always have people again and again enter that place that moment when they use drugs for the first time,” Bewley said.

Bewley criticized Wisconsin’s cultural identity of drinking and “high tolerance for feeling good,” or tendency to self-medicate.

“Once you know or once society says, ‘OK go find a substance to make you feel better and that’s OK,’ then we’re starting down where anybody can end up using anything or becoming addicted,” Bewley said.

Panelists emphasized that educating communities on opioid addiction and treatment options is needed.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, became personally invested in combating the state’s heroin and opiate epidemic after his daughter overdosed in 2009. He introduced his HOPE (Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education) agenda in 2014, which passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in 2014.

“You either address the problem or accept the fact that it’s going to get worse,” Nygren said. “Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of communities that struggle where there’s not a lot of engagement from the local citizenry.”

Nygren said he is focused on reducing the stigmas associated with opioid use and increasing empathy.

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