Now more than ever, Chattanooga sees the importance in offering support to individuals facing mental and substance use disorders and create environments and relationships that promote acceptance throughout our city. Since 2011, opioid injection drug use in Tennessee has increased 38%, and Tennessee’s drug-related deaths have increased 40%. In addition, there was a 364% increase in the number of cases of acute Hepatitis C infection from 2006 to 2012 among persons under the age of 30. Too many people are still unaware that prevention with individuals facing mental and substance use disorders work, and that these disorders can be treated, just like other health problems.
The Syringe Trade and Education Program of Tennessee (STEP TN), initiated and operated by Cempa Community Care, takes a bold approach in tackling the underlying community health concerns created by the opioid epidemic. In recognition of National Recovery Month, STEP TN hosted a Lunch & Learn inviting local organizations and agencies to collaborate on how to help individuals who inject drugs to enroll in evidence-based treatment. National Recovery Month raises awareness of mental and substance use disorders, celebrates individuals in long-term recovery, and acknowledges the work of prevention, treatment, and recovery support services.
STEP TN and local organizations, including testing centers, rehabilitation facilities, and law enforcement discussed the new syringe trade program and the opportunities for making recovery resources available to individuals who inject drugs. Ashley Ewald, Harm Reduction manager at Cempa Community Care, shared with community members how STEP TN began in March 2018. STEP TN’s purpose is to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, and other bloodborne diseases. The program also seeks to reduce needle stick injuries to law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel and encourage individuals who inject drugs to enroll in evidence-based treatment.
Ewald said, “It is important that we collaborate our efforts and work together to help individuals battling drug abuse find the support they need. It can be as simple as taking the time to listen to someone’s personal story.” So much more can be accomplished by bringing STEP TN, law enforcement, and recovery organizations together to have a conversation about substance abuse challenges. Lindsey Ivester, Pre-Arrest Diversion Program Coordinator at Volunteer Behavioral Health Care System said, “These types of harm reduction models have been used all across the country and research shows that they have proven to be effective.”
A common myth is that syringe exchange programs encourage, enable or increase drug use, as well as crime. Research from the World Health Organization and American Medical Association shows this is not true. In fact, many studies show that syringe exchange programs decrease drug use by connecting people to treatment. Ewald said, “This is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.” It is estimated that syringe exchange program participants are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than non-participants. Ewald said, “Syringe exchange programs actually support recovery by linking an otherwise marginalized population into treatment and other services.” STEP TN looks forward to continuing to collaborate with community organizations to provide individuals with the support and recovery services they need.