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Substance abuse, mental health issues addressed at Hope & Resources fair at Penn State Schuylkill

Republican Herald - 9/23/2023

Sep. 22—SCHUYLKILL HAVEN — When treating individuals with substance use disorder, it is important not to overlook comorbidities of other circumstances or mental health conditions, said Kimberly Ernest, a licensed professional counselor.

"Right now, approximately 50% of those with substance use disorder also meet criteria for a concurrent mental health disorder — and I actually anticipate that number is probably underrepresented and underreported," said Ernest, executive vice president of Pennsylvania Counseling Services.

Ernest was a guest speaker at Hope & Resources, a free community event Thursday at Penn State Schuylkill that explored the intersection of mental health, substance abuse and other critical issues affecting the populace.

Common comorbidities with substance use disorder include depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and Axis II personality disorders, Ernest said.

"We believe in treating the entire individual," she said. "... One of the things that we're seeing more of is amphetamine use in the area (with) eating disorders."

About 100 people attended the event, which included a vendor fair and concluded with a panel featuring people in recovery.

About two-dozen organizations were represented at the fair, including county agencies, pharmaceutical companies, counseling services and veterans groups.

Christopher Wood, of Port Carbon, attended the event with his mother, Diane Bogdan, of Pottsville. Both are members of New Hope, a support group based in Orwigsburg.

Wood said it's important for people in recovery to find friends who are in similar situations.

"A lot of people don't have that," he said.

In addition to Penn State Schuylkill, the event was co-hosted by New Hope, Schuylkill County Drug & Alcohol Services, Schuylkill County Mental Health & Developmental Services and Schuylkill County's VISION.

Guest speaker Carla Sofronski, of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network, gave a presentation about challenging the stigma associated with drug use.

Sofronski examined the history of drug stigmatization in the United States, starting with the earliest instances of criminalization for opium use in the 1870s.

She said that one part of harm reduction is to change "the way we think and talk about drugs" and to accept that drug use is part of people's lives.

"People are going to use drugs," she said. "We can't control people — I really wish we could, but we can't. In terms of thinking about people using drugs, what can we do? ... What can we do to minimize risk of harm? It might look different for everybody."

Important harm reduction techniques, she said, include expanding access to items such as Naloxone, which she believes should be included in all first aid kits.

"Think about what harm reduction can look like in your community," she said.

Sofronski's speech was followed by a panel of six community members: Laura Waits, Christopher Smith, Newton Mull, Danette Mahute, Paul Noon and Diane Rowland. The panelists shared stories about what had led them down the path to drug addiction or alcoholism, and their subsequent journey to recovery.

Jessica Saalfield, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Schuylkill, said there had been a need for a community event highlighting the available resources for those with substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Given the success of the inaugural event, she is hopeful that Hope & Resources will return next year.

Deborah Campbell, a member of New Hope, was instrumental in forming the event with Penn State Schuylkill.

"I just felt like post-pandemic, we sort of got lazy with awakening the community with the extent of the opioid epidemic," Campbell said. " ... So far, (Hope & Resources) has been a great success story. We're really hoping that this can become an annual thing."

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