In order to help people struggling with addiction, some communities are taking steps to think outside the box.
The Potomac Highlands region of the Eastern Panhandle has brought together law enforcement, faith-based organizations and community members. The goal is to create one robust network of support in this rural region for people struggling with substance use disorder.
The network strives to combat stigma and offer a safety net that, for some, say feels like a family.
Once a month in Petersburg, West Virginia, community members from around the region come together to discuss one thing – recovery efforts in the Potomac Highland counties of Grant, Hardy, Hampshire, Mineral and Pendleton.
This group is called PITAR. It stands for prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery. The group in Petersburg decided to modify that, however, to include anti-stigma and reentry.
“PITAR is not something that we created. We borrowed this model; adapted it from Harrison County,” said Raj Masih. Masih works in state response and prevention for the Potomac Highlands Guild — a comprehensive behavioral health service. The guild was the launching point for PITAR in Petersburg.
Forming PITAR was vital, said Masih, because getting resources and treatment is especially challenging for rural areas like the Potomac Highlands.
For example, even in Petersburg, one of the more populated communities in this region, there isn’t a detox or rehabilitation center.
“I think what is cool about our community is not having these big services like other parts of the state — like Huntington, Charleston, Morgantown, Clarksburg, Martinsburg, which has these things in place — we've had to really be creative and adapt and build partnerships,” Masih said. “So, these are things I think our community has really stepped up.”
PITAR in Petersburg was formed in 2016 and is made up of a range of members, such as faith leaders, public-school boards, police, fire and health departments, and even a local transportation agency. There are also peer recovery coaches who have been through addiction and recovery themselves.
That’s what helped 23-year-old Estella Lambert.
“I was addicted to about everything in 2016,” Lambert said.
Lambert grew up in Petersburg. After her mother told their pastor of Lambert’s struggles with addiction, the pastor reached out to PITAR.
Lambert said if the group hadn’t helped her, she probably wouldn’t have made it.
“They took me to rehab in Romney, and they've stuck with me ever since,” she said.
Lambert is now a peer recovery coach.
One of the PITAR members who helped Lambert was Roger Dodd. Dodd is a veteran, and for about 40 years, he struggled with heroin addiction and alcoholism. In 2014, he entered recovery. Today, he works with PITAR as a peer recovery support specialist.
The reason PITAR is successful, Dodd said, is because towns in the Potomac Highlands have that small town feel and everyone knows everyone.
“It's that knowing of people. We're not strangers. We're not people thrown together in this huge mixing bowl,” Dodd said. “We are people who basically have been here forever. We are descendants of the people that came across the mountains and chopped all the trees down and made a town here. And that counts for something.”
Dodd attributes the small town qualities of closeness and family to why their recovery efforts have done so well.
PITAR in Petersburg also offers support groups, Narcan trainings, fentanyl test kits, access to vivitrol and harm reduction services, and there’s even opportunities to help people find employment while they’re going through recovery.
But getting everyone in the Potomac Highlands onboard with recovery efforts, hasn’t been easy or perfect. Despite PITAR’s message of safety and openness, stigma still lives on, but Dodd thinks it’s getting better.
“Before it was like, ‘oh, well, that's an incurable thing. He's a drug addict. He's never going to be anything else,’” Dodd said. “But now people are saying, ‘well, we could get him to rehab. We could try detox.’”
He believes the increasingly empathetic portrayal of people dealing with substance use disorder in film and television is helping.
Dodd said more education and understanding will continue to break the stigma surrounding substance use disorder.
PITAR officials say the next step is to secure more funding to establish more detox and rehabilitation centers throughout the region.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.