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In our opinion: Compassionate and effective solutions to emulate in the opioid crisis

Carbon County Commissioner Jake Mellor poses for a portrait outside of the commission chambers in Price on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Carbon County is facing an opioid epidemic.
Carbon County Commissioner Jake Mellor poses for a portrait outside of the commission chambers in Price on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Carbon County is facing an opioid epidemic.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Efforts to address homelessness in Utah and the high rate of opioid drug abuse have had the beneficial effect of bringing community organizations together to foster greater awareness and better responses to the problem of untreated mental illness.

And now there are solutions worthy of emulating.

A campaign in Carbon County to create an integrated and holistic approach to a crisis in abuse of opioid-based narcotics, focusing on detection, diagnosis and treatment, is underway.

In Utah County, authorities are training law enforcement officers to deal with people suffering from mental illness who come in contact with police.

And in Seattle, the LEAD program — Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion — gets addicts off the street and into a place to live with long-term case management. It’s a program, highlighted in the Deseret News last month, that is built on patience and understanding of the individual.

These examples recognize mental illness as an underlying contributor to the homelessness problem, as well as a potential cause or result of addiction to opioid drugs. The program in Carbon County is praiseworthy for its scope and inclusiveness in aligning an array of community groups, including law enforcement, clergy, social services agencies, health care providers and volunteer organizations.

The campaign is referred to as the CARE Coalition, for Carbon Addiction Reduction and Elimination. It arose out of consternation over the county having the state’s highest rate of prescription overdose deaths. “In these small communities, every one of us knows someone who is affected by it,” says Carbon County Commissioner Jake Mellor.

An important part of the campaign is recognition that mental illness and substance abuse disorders are often “co-occurring” conditions best addressed in tandem. A research study by the nonprofit Kaiser Health News shows that adults with a mental illness receive half of all opioid-based prescriptions. In Carbon County, law enforcement teams work with staffers from Four Corners Behavioral Health, a nonprofit service provider for mental health patients, to assess drug offenders and place them quickly in appropriate treatment programs upon release from jail.

Not allowing drug offenders to lapse back into the behavior that got them into legal trouble is key to ensuring they are in a position to overcome their addiction.

Police officers in Utah County are participating in a crisis intervention training program to help them better identify and understand behavior tied to mental illness. Should someone come into contact with police as a result of a mental condition, authorities are finding it more effective to treat them as patients instead of criminals. Similarly, in Salt Lake City, as part of the campaign against problems related to homelessness in the Rio Grande District, the police department has assembled a staff of social workers to assist officers in dealing with that part of the homeless population who are on the streets because of underlying mental health conditions.

And in Seattle since 2011, more than 500 people have been enrolled in LEAD, which has been replicated in 11 cities across the country, including Santa Fe, New Mexico and Albany, New York.

These approaches reflect a much-needed recognition of the ineffectiveness of a system that has fostered a cycle in which those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness find themselves shuffled perpetually from the streets to jail and back to the streets. It is encouraging to see public and private resources being deployed in a coordinated effort to address the causes, and not merely the results, of behavior that contributes to serious social problems. Too often, the old approach ended tragically for those who were not properly treated.