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Drug cases pinch SIMS budget as local opioid abuse grows

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A surge in substance abuse cases, specifically opioids, in Austin’s music community has put one of Austin’s most well-known music nonprofits in financial trouble and on the lookout for public and private dollars to combat a growing health crisis.

The SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health services, including drug and alcohol abuse treatment, to Austin musicians, saw the number of substance abuse treatment cases double in 2017 with more than 40 percent of all cases needing treatment for opioid dependency.

With substance abuse treatment costing up to $10,000 per client, the 80 cases SIMS handled in 2017 far exceeded its budget and executive director Heather Alden said she’s scrambling to cover a $200,000 budget shortfall in 2018 to continue to provide services.

That shortfall is in part because SIMS didn’t receive a grant from the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians dedicated to substance abuse, in part because that organization is seeing demand for services outstrip its own budget.

With three recorded deaths of musicians from opioid abuse since Christmas, Alden said the growing presence of heroin and opium-derived pharmaceuticals in Austin is starting to get attention from the larger health care community.

“I’m going out into the community for new resources, looking to increase from government and private individuals,” she said. “There are people who are disturbed we’ve lost so many musicians this year and don’t want it to happen again.”

Alden and other health care professionals in Austin said musicians and artists tend to be a leading indicator of drug and substance abuse trends because those populations are frequently in close proximity to alcohol and drugs, and because the pressures of living as an artist put more stress on them.

“Musicians are a canary in a coal mine because their proximity to drugs and alcohol the workplace is like no other,” she said. “It’s solvable because SIMS has the unique ability to target a clientele and know how to reach musicians. We can get out in front of this. If this truly is a crisis for the whole city, the music community is a place where we can solve this.”

SIMS and the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas will publish a study this summer showing that musicians are far more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. That study could be an important piece of Alden’s push for the city of Austin to provide increased funding and resources for abuse of opioids and other substances.

Mayor Steve Adler said he’s spoken with Alden about the growing problem SIMS and other health care groups are facing with an increase in substance abuse.

“The news that people in Austin are not immune to the national opioid crisis comes as sad news but no surprise,” he said. “We need to do more to address this crisis, and I look forward to what solutions the community brings to the Council for swift action.”

Carlos Tirado, founder and chief marketing officer of CARMA Health drug treatment center, said he’s had to triple his staff since opening last year because of the increase in opioid abuse in Austin, with the increase among musicians coming ahead of abuse cases in the general population.

“People in music tend to have had adverse childhood events and a family situation where they had to deal with the effects of mental illness, and the lifestyle as a whole is conducive to substance abuse,” he said. “We’re seeing that what’s happening locally is beginning to mirror the national epidemic. We’ve not been intensely affected yet but we’re seeing a definite increase in cases of individuals with opioid issues.”

Tirado said the bulk of cases into his center are locals, and said the problem could become even more acute if Asian heroin laced with fentanyl – an opiate derivative that is reportedly 100 times stronger than traditional heroin – makes its way into the Austin market.

Sherry Blyth, director of crisis services, substance use treatment and justice initiatives for Integral Care, said her organization has expanded its substance abuse treatment to handle 350 regular clients because of an increase in demand that began roughly a year ago.

That growth in opioid dependence caused Integral Care to change its practice for giving prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs that users can develop a dependence on.

Blyth said partnerships with other health care groups such as Community Care will help address the growing substance abuse issues throughout the area.

“What we do know is the community is acutely aware of the need, and that we need to work on it,” she said. “We’re always on the lookout for grants and other resources that can help.”

U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner.

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